How often, then, do cup winners get lucky? Ahead of tomorrow night’s European Cup final in Rome it’s a question worth asking ourselves, because there is a tendency, in cup finals, for those moments of good fortune to be critically important. In this respect, cup competitions are very different to league seasons. A league season consists of a large number of matches. Teams may occasionally stutter at the top or pull off surprise wins at the bottom (see Hull City beating Arsenal at The Emirates for proof of this) but, generally speaking, things level themselves out by the end of the season.
The cups, though, are a different beast altogether. One slice of luck or one brilliant piece of skill by a player that one might have thought singularly incapable of such genius can win a cup in a way that it can’t win a league competition. If a league season is a marathon and not a sprint, then a cup competition is a sprint and not a marathon, to an extent. I say “to an extent”, of course, because the indignity of losing to lower placed opposition isn’t something that the biggest clubs like very much. They very much understand that league seasons level themselves out. This was a very welcome side effect of the conversion of the European Cup into a mini-league format (along with the extra television money).
Until we get a full blown European Super League (and just think how super that will be, with the third best team in Germany playing the fourth best team in Spain for the right to ninth place in the middle of April), though the element of luck remains. Luck, of course, doesn’t always favour the underdog. It is, by its nature, random, and some clubs have arguably been luckier than others. Manchester United have, in the European Cup, been pretty lucky, at least when they have when they’ve got to the final of the European Cup. Indeed, they could quite easily have lost all three of the European Cup finals that they have played and won.
The first, of course, was in 1968. This was the win which, ten years after the Munich Air Disaster, was the win of destiny. United had a lot in their favour, not least the fact that the match was being played at Wembley Stadium in London. In the days before cheap, mass air transport, this meant an almost “home” crowd. Yet Benfica were a good team, and they were stubborn. Eusebio hit the crossbar for them early on and Bobby Charlton’s headed goal early in the second half wasn’t entirely in keeping with the run of play of the match at that point. Benfica equalised soon afterwards, and in the dying seconds Eusebio burst down the middle of the pitch, but opted for power rather than placing and Alex Stepney made an outstanding save to take the match into extra time, where Manchester United eventually ran out flattering 4-1 winners in a match that they could easily have lost.
Thirty-one years later, United were back in their second European Cup final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona. The excitement of the last couple of minutes has dulled many people’s memories of the match itself. The shell-shocked looks on the faces of the Bayern defenders said it all. They had out-played United for much of the previous ninety minutes before a scuffed shot from Teddy Sheringham and the extruding leg of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won the match in four crazy, intoxicating minutes at the Camp Nou. Both of them were substitutes – never let it be said that you don’t entirely make your own luck, and a trophy that should have gone to Munich headed to Manchester instead.
In last year’s final against Chelsea in Moscow, Manchester United and Chelsea largely cancelled each other out, with the match finishing 1-1. In the penalty shootout, though Cristiano Ronaldo was the first player to miss, and had it not been for the peculiar decision to have John Terry taking Chelsea’s final kick, United would have lost. Instead, Terry lost his footing, Nicolas Anelka missed two kicks later and the cup returned to Old Trafford for a third time. Three European Cup finals, three wins and three matches that they could have lost.
Of course, history goes out of the window tomorrow night. Looking at the current teams, the only rational conclusion to arrive at is that Manchester United will never have a better chance to beat Barcelona in a match of this importance again. While United’s injuries seem to all be tidying up just in time for the final (Rio Ferdinand, for example, is expected to play), Barcelona are hamstrung by injuries and suspensions. That the bookmakers have the two teams as virtually inseparable is puzzling, in this respect, but European Cup finals have tended to provide more drama than we might expect from a single football match. In spite of the way in which they might have ridden their luck in previous European Cup finals, though, it would seem foolish to bet against Manchester United tomorrow night.