Along with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Man United are the biggest clubs in the world.
The 2019 versions may not be the strongest iterations of these proud clubs, but Tuesday night’s fixture at the Nou Camp is enough to induce goosebumps.
Not just because of the sheer scale of global interest, but because of the history the rivalry is built on.
Let’s refresh our memories with five specific moments…
1 David Beckham demands Europe recognise his trademark
In 1998/99, United and Barcelona were joined by Bayern Munich (and Brondby) in the Group of Death™.
And Barca’s trip to Old Trafford provided the most chaotic opening fixture imaginable.
The visitors benefited from two penalties (Rivaldo diving? Surely not…), a Nicky Butt red card, and generally suspect refereeing from the get-go.
The 3-3 draw was Xavi’s Champions League debut, but it was United’s up-and-coming midfielder who impressed most.
Beckham exhibited his unparalleled crossing before scoring a trademark free-kick.
Forget all the celebrity distractions, he was an excellent footballer in his prime and his contribution to United’s treble should never be underestimated.
2 Lionel Messi loses his boot
Messi is one of the greatest passers, free-kick takers, dribblers and finishers of all time.
But you’d back yourself to beat him in the air.
The legendary No10 is closing in on 700 career goals but a tiny portion have been scored with his head — as you would expect from a 5ft 7in player.
The rarity of his headed goals is what makes his 2009 Champions League final leap one of his personal favourite moments.
With 20 minutes of normal time left, Xavi clipped an inviting cross over Rio Ferdinand’s head, but still Messi had to leap, readjust, and aim his header over the imposing figure of Edwin van der Sar.
So brilliantly distorted was the Argentina forward, he lost his right boot upon landing — hence the iconic image of him holding it as he celebrated (something Adidas were very pleased about).
3 Carlos Queiroz drags two gym mats around Carrington
In 2008, Man United stopped Barcelona scoring in both legs of the Champions League semi-final.
Frank Rijkaard deployed a who’s who of attacking talent over the two fixtures (Messi, Xavi, Deco, Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta, Samuel Eto’o, Eidur Gudjohnsen) but Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops held firm.
According to Michael Carrick, it was Queiroz – Fergie’s able assistant – who masterminded the double denial.
The squad were training as usual prior to the first leg when the Portuguese coach suddenly appeared dragging two gym mats behind him.
“It was me and Scholesy in midfield and I think Rio and Wes Brown were centre-halves,” Carrick said on Sky Sports in 2017.
“And he’s put these two mats in between us, we’re thinking, ‘what’s he up to here?’
“Literally for about five minutes he’s just said ‘don’t let the ball get on those mats’, so straight away you switch on and you’re blocking that space off.
“That’s where Barcelona, around the edge of the box, that’s where they wanted to get into, that space, that was how they played at the time.”
This simple training drill allowed United to frustrate Messi and co for over 180 minutes, meaning Paul Scholes’ unstoppable long-ranger at Old Trafford proved decisive.
Two gym mats versus a collection of generational attacking players? Only one winner there…
4 A famous partnership perform telepathy
For a certain generation, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole are the iconic strike partnership.
In the reverse group game of the 3-3 draw mentioned earlier (see No1), the two teams once again shared six goals equally.
Rivaldo scored an impressive brace (free-kick, bicycle kick) but Yorke and Cole’s link-up for the latter’s goal was the perfect example of the pair’s functioning relationship.
This result contributed to United qualifying for the knockout stages ahead of Barca; along with Bayern, who the Red Devils would ultimately beat at the Nou Camp (of all places) to complete an historic treble.
H I S T O R Y.
5 Wayne Rooney begs for mercy
The 2011 Champions League final is the seminal 90 minutes of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona reign.
Fergie’s United had won four Premier League titles out of the last five and were full of confidence ahead of the showdown with Barca at Wembley.
But if 2009 was a statement of supremacy, 2011 underlined it ten-fold.
The Catalan giants won 3-1, but the truth is Rooney’s spectacular equaliser barely disrupted Barca’s hypnotic rhythm.
Xavi and Iniesta completed 263 passes between them and it was this relentless, mesmeric ball retention that Rooney interpreted as showboating in the game’s final 15 minutes.
Sergio Busquets revealed to the Guardian that United’s No10 practically begged for mercy in the latter stages, saying to Xavi something along the lines of: “That’s enough, you’ve won. You can stop playing the ball around now.”
Ferguson recognised this death by a thousand cuts for the masterpiece it was, saying afterwards: “We’ve never taken a hiding like that.”
Victory confirmed what many suspected, Guardiola’s Barcelona were one of the greatest club sides of all time.
Here’s hoping Tuesday night adds to this classic European rivalry.