“Man United’s best ever result in Europe?” asked a breathless Martin Keown as the nation wondered out loud what sort of a fool ranks a 2-1 group stage win over and above actually winning the Champions League. But he was right to then qualify his question and wonder whether it was United’s best result in Europe for a while. Make that a long while. Make that a really sodding long while.
The best away result since the 1-1 with Real Madrid in 2013 that ultimately proved pointless? Or the 0-0 in Milan on the way to the 2009 final? Or the 0-0 in Barcelona on the way to the 2008 final? The best away win since the 3-0 victory over Juventus in 2003? One thing is for certain: every single possible answer will take you back to Sir Alex Ferguson, for this is United’s greatest result in Europe since his retirement.
The greatest result of Jose Mourinho’s reign? Undoubtedly. He may prefer to point to a cupboard of trinkets but beating Southampton and Ajax in cup finals is nothing compared to triumphing over a genuine European superpower on a ground where they have not lost a Champions League group game in almost nine years. Beating City in April was lovely but it was a swipe at the tail of a mouse who had already run off with all the cheese.
This was proper. Were Manchester United better than Juventus? You might as well ask whether United were better than Bayern Munich in 1999. It’s immaterial. United put themselves in a position to pull off an unlikely victory with a proactive, aggressive performance that was only two weeks and yet light years away from the pathetic capitulation of two weeks ago at Old Trafford.
Finally, we saw aggression and purpose from United right from the opening whistle. We saw a desire to press when out of possession and a desire to push forward when in possession. There were even periods of the first half when United controlled the tempo. Against Juventus. In Turin. Like it was 2003.
Unlike 2003, there was a lack of quality in the final third. Eventually, Juventus found something akin to their mojo and created/wasted a glut of chances; a total of 23 shots with only three on target tells the story of sloppy finishing and pot-shots from distance. It is not controversial to say that Juventus – with their domination of Italian football and recent donning of too many bridesmaid dresses in Europe – are currently a better side than United, but history will not talk of missed chances, only of a rousing comeback and a statement victory.
Two weeks ago, United were 1-0 down and there was no hint that they were remotely capable of changing that scoreline for the better. They were passive and subservient. In Turin, there was always a chance; they had begun the contest in a combative mood and that mood remained even when Juventus were camped on the edge of their box. There was no air of resignation. No inferiority complex.
When Jose Mourinho brought on Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini, Max Allegri was worried enough to bring on a third centre-half. It proved to be a fatal error as United – buoyed by recent late rallies – gained confidence from the Italian club’s backwards step. As Juventus panicked, United believed. When they had scored one, you knew they could score another. It felt nostalgic. United’s mission must now be to make this more than a one-off tribute act, to make this their identity again.
“Man United’s best ever result in Europe?” No, but it’s Jose Mourinho’s Man United’s best ever result in Europe and any Red not getting giddy should probably give up football right now.