“We lost 1-0, but it could have been 10-0. It was the biggest battering I’ve ever had on a football pitch. They took us to school, boys against men. We didn’t have a proper chance in the whole match. Manchester United played ninety minutes without a shot, without a sniff of a chance. It’s the only time that happened in my 602 games.”
So said Red Devils legend Gary Neville in his 2011 autobiography. The team he was describing? Marcello Lippi’s Juventus. That match took place in Turin in 1996, but swap some names and move 22 years into the future and it could easily describe the Bianconeri’s win at Old Trafford tonight.
When the two old rivals were drawn together in Group H of the Champions League there was much discussion of the famous duels of the 1990s, when Lippi and Sir Alex Ferguson regularly pitted their wits against one another; the urbane, cigar smoking Italian and the volcanic, brilliant Scotsman.
Neither man was on the touchline last night, but what unfolded on the pitch harkened back to the early days of those famous duels.
From the first whistle Juventus controlled proceedings, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci knocking the ball around between them like two 19th Century aristocrats enjoying a particularly placid game of lawn tennis. Over on the croquet pitch, Rodrigo Bentancur and Miralem Pjanic strolled merrily to-and-fro, Blaise Matuidi snarling around them to deter any intruders.
What was billed as a titanic tussle was barely even a contest, and when Paulo Dybala converted the only goal of the game it looked as though it was simply a question of how many Juventus would score.
That they managed only one was in part due to an improved second half performance from Jose Mourinho’s side, and perhaps more down to some sloppy second half play from the visitors. A few dropped passes in the final 20 minutes will be of concern to Coach Massimiliano Allegri, but in truth Manchester United created nothing, their best chance coming via a long-range Paul Pogba effort which cannoned off the post and then Wojciech Szczesny’s head.
Strangely, the man of the hour, Cristiano Ronaldo, was rather quiet. Instead the most impressive attacking player was his strike partner, Dybala, whose movement and intelligence bamboozled the United defence for the first hour of the match.
After that 1996 match, Neville described Alessandro Del Piero as “a class act, so sharp and elusive and intelligent”, but he could easily have been talking about Dybala, who showed guile and finesse which none of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford or Romelu Lukaku could come close to on the night.
Ferguson’s Manchester United would go on to match Juventus, eventually surpassing them on the way to a famous treble in 1999. The fact Jose Mourinho spent the final few minutes goading the visiting Bianconeri about his own treble, achieved eight years ago, said much about the direction of travel for the two contemporary sides.