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On this day, May 15, 1991: Manchester United beat Barcelona in Cup Winners' Cup final

Welsh striker Hughes scores twice against his former club as manager Ferguson wins second trophy at United

Manchester United player Lee Sharpe celebrates after winning the 1991 European Cup Winner's Cup final against Barcelona  in Rotterdam. Getty
Manchester United player Lee Sharpe celebrates after winning the 1991 European Cup Winner's Cup final against Barcelona  in Rotterdam. Getty

When Manchester United defeated Barcelona to win the 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup, it was a significant night not just for Alex Ferguson's side, but English football as a whole.

This was the first season that English clubs had been allowed back into European competition following the blanket ban introduced as a result of the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985.

Liverpool, whose supporters had been blamed for the violence that resulted in 39 mostly Italian and Juventus fans being killed on that horrific night in Belgium, were reigning Division One champions and should have been contesting for the European Cup but remained banned for another season.

Aston Villa had seen their Uefa Cup adventure reach a speedy conclusion after losing 3-2 on aggregate to Inter Milan in the second round.

That left FA Cup winners United flying the flag for England in the Cup Winners' Cup.

Ferguson had been close to the sack before winning his first trophy as manager the previous season when his team defeated Crystal Palace 1-0 after a replay at Wembley Stadium.

With the pressure now eased, it was time to conquer Europe. It had been a relatively smooth run to the final in Rotterdam for United, with Pecs, Wrexham, Montpellier and all brushed aside over two legs.

They wracked up a 15-3 aggregate score over the four ties without losing a game.

Eight games to reach the final. By the time Jose Mourinho's United side booked their place in the 2017 Europa League final, they had played 14.

Barcelona, managed by the great Johan Cruyff, would provide a huge step up in quality for the final. The Catalans were flying high having just won the La Liga title to bring an end to a five year run of Real Madrid domination in Spain.

Despite missing injured striker Hristo Stoichkov, their starting line-up still contained start turns Ronald Koeman, Julio Salinas and Michael Laudrup.

But the Ferguson era was starting to take shape. From Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister in defence, Paul Ince and Bryan Robson in midfielder, Lee Sharpe out wide and up to Mark Hughes up front. Strong characters and tough operators, a mix of youth and experience, pace and power.

But that did not stop his side feeling the nerves of playing in a major European final.

The Manchester United and Barcelona teams line up before the match. Getty 
The Manchester United and Barcelona teams line up before the match in Rotterdam. Getty

“I was the most nervous I’d be for a game in my life,” said Sharpe, who had just been crowned PFA Young Player of the Year. “I saw interviews on television beforehand when Ronald Koeman was being asked what he though of Lee Sharpe and I was a bit blown away by it all; I had just turned 20.”

Pallister, who would turn 26 the following month, said: “I was very nervous on the way to the ground.

“Johan Cruyff said that Brucey and I couldn’t pass the ball so I was determined to prove him wrong."

For Hughes, the game would have added meaning. The Welsh attacker had endured one miserable season at Barcelona after joining fellow Brit Gary Lineker at the club, then managed by Englishman Terry Venables, in 1986.

After being farmed out on loan to Bayern Munich, the Catalans sold him back to United in 1988. Hughes had a point to prove, but neither team was able to take charge of the match after a cagey, goalless first half.

"The way Barcelona set up tactically in the final made things very difficult for us in the first half," admitted Ferguson.

"They played two wide players and no centre-forward, and crowded the midfield. Once we got organised at half-time we were the better team."

The deadlock was broken in the 68th minute when Hughes tapped home a Bruce header from close range. Both would claim the goal but it was officially given to Hughes.

Seven minutes later, it was two. Inevitably, it was Hughes again, although this time there would be no doubt it was his after he rounded goalkeeper Carles Busquets to fire home from an acute angle.

Koeman would pull one back for Barca with 11 minutes to go, thanks to a trademark free-kick, but United sealed a deserved victory.

“We were the better team for 75 minutes of the game and deserved to win. I felt really proud," Pallister said. "That Cup Winners’ Cup victory was the best buzz of my football career.”

It was their first European trophy since Bobby Charlton, George Best and Co triumphed in the 1968 European Cup final against Benfica.

For Ferguson, who had won the tournament as Aberdeen manager in 1983, it was the clearest sign yet that a new power was emerging out of Manchester.

He would go on to guide his team to 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues and a Club World Cup.

Manchester United's two goal hero Mark Hughes, left, challenges Albert Ferrer of Barcelona. Getty
Manchester United's two goal hero Mark Hughes, left, challenges Albert Ferrer of Barcelona. Getty

Updated: May 15, 2020 09:48 AM

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