EUROPEAN CUP HISTORY.COM
Since the Munich Air Disaster of 1958, Manchester United had slowly rebuilt their side as they attempted to win the European Cup trophy that they had seemed destined to claim before tragedy had struck on that fateful icy German night. Matt Busby, who had only just survived the crash himself, had the onerous task of creating yet another side that could compete with the best in Europe. The recovery had begun with an F.A.Cup win in 1963 followed by a championship victory in 1965. Having despatched Benfica so ruthlessly in the following seasons European Cup, United had seemed destined to realise their European dream in 1966, but their unexpected defeat by Partizan Belgrade had put paid to that. Undaunted, Busby’s side won back the championship in 1967 and prepared for what was possibly their last chance to become champions of Europe. With those that were left from Munich – Busby, Charlton and Foulkes – coming to the end of their respective careers, it was thought by many that yet another rebuilding process would soon be necessary at Old Trafford and that it could be many years before a new manager could create another side capable of succeeding at such a high level. The 1967/68 European Cup campaign, therefore, was probably the last chance that Busby and Charlton would have to finally become European champions, and possibly the last opportunity that Manchester United would have for many years to come.
The 1967/68 competition saw the introduction of two new regulations. Firstly, a seeding system would ensure that the teams from countries that had already supplied finalists would be kept apart until the later stages of the competition. Secondly, a new ruling that sought to separate two evenly matched teams without the need for playing a replay was introduced. It was decided by UEFA that ties in the first round that finished level after two legs would be decided by doubling the value of goals scored away from home. In other words, the team that had scored the most away goals would go through. One of the teams to benefit immediately was a former winner of the competition. Benfica were considered overwhelming favourites to dispose of the Belfast club Glentoran in the opening round, but it took a late Eusebio equaliser in Northern Ireland to salvage a 1-1 draw in the first leg and the return game remained goalless – thus Benfica sneaked through to the second round courtesy of the new away goals rule.
But if the first round had provided the former winners with a scare, things were even worse for the new holders of the trophy. Having thrilled the world with their swashbuckling victory over Inter in the 1967 final, much was expected of Celtic as they attempted to defend their title, but sadly for them, they went crashing out at the first hurdle. Having been drawn against the Russians of Dynamo Kiev, Celtic went on all out attack at home in an attempt to build up a sizeable first leg lead, but up against the massed defence and swift counter attacks of Dynamo, they were undone by conceding two early goals and could only muster one Lennox goal in response. With the new away goals rule in force, it was a deficit that was even harder to recover from than before. Their task was made even more difficult after 55 minutes in Kiev when Bobby Murdoch was booked for throwing the ball away in disgust following a free kick decision. As he had been booked in the first half for disputing another free kick award, he was ordered from the pitch. Murdoch appeared stunned and refused to move until his manager ran to the touchline and told him to come off. The Celtic man walked off, tearfully holding his head in his hands. Bobby Lennox did pull a goal back just four minutes later to give Celtic a chance, but their exit was confirmed by a last minute Kiev goal, and just over four months after that glorious night in Portugal when the ‘Lisbon Lions’ had snatched the European Cup from Inter’s grasp, Celtic were out.
There was drama elsewhere as the old masters of Real Madrid were drawn against Europe’s up and coming stars from Ajax Amsterdam. Johan Cruyff gave Ajax the lead in Holland before Pirri equalised to earn the Spaniards a 1-1 draw. After 90 minutes in Madrid the two teams were still locked together after another 1-1 stalemate and it was not until nine minutes from the end of extra time that Veloso dribbled through the Ajax defence and scored for Real to send them through to the second round.
The second round set few problems for the fancied teams left in the competition, and the quarter-finals also produced the expected results, although a couple of the major sides had to battle hard to reach the semi-finals. Benfica and Real Madrid may have despatched Vasas Budapest and Sparta Prague respectively with relative ease, but Manchester United and Juventus both endured tighter contests. The Italians, having lost 3-2 to Eintracht Brunswick in Germany needed a Bercellino penalty just two minutes from time to earn a replay in Berne which they won thanks to Magnussons goal, while United’s 2-0 home win over Gornik Zarbrze – conquerors of Kiev - came courtesy of an own goal and a last minute Brian Kidd strike. In the return, on a hard snow covered pitch, the English champions had to hold on for the last twenty minutes after Gornik made the aggregate score 2-1 on aggregate. But in the end it was Manchester United who joined Juventus, Benfica and Real Madrid in the mouth watering semi-finals.
Juventus v Eintracht Brunswick
Since bursting onto the scene in Benfica’s European Cup triumph over Barcelona in 1961, Eusebio had gone on to become one of the pre-eminent stars of world football. Benfica were on course to win their seventh Portuguese championship in nine years and had played in four of the previous seven European Cup finals. Eusebio had played a major role in his sides success and had been rewarded with the European Footballer of the Year award in 1965. ‘The Black Pearl’ had also been one of the best players in the 1966 World Cup as he led Portugal to the semi-finals. Now, with four European Cup goals already under his belt for the season, he was the driving force behind Benfica’s qualification for yet another final as they eliminated Juventus in the semi-final. Second half goals from the six foot six inch Torres and the graceful Eusebio gave the home side a 2-0 lead after the first leg in Lisbon, and a 66th minute goal thanks to a 30 yard free-kick from a hobbling Eusebio in the return game was enough to see Benfica through to their fifth European Cup Final.
Benfica v Juventus
Before the other semi-final between Manchester United and Real Madrid, United manager Matt Busby forecast that: ‘If the tension does not become too great, this could be a classic match. The old Real Madrid had a touch of magic about them. Now, after rebuilding, they are moving back towards greatness.’ He was certainly proved correct about the encounter turning out to be a classic, although it began relatively quietly at Old Trafford where the first leg was played. There was only one goal in the match as Best pounced on Aston’s low cross on 37 minutes to hammer the ball into the net. Most observers felt that a single goal lead was not enough for Manchester United to take to Spain for the return game.
For the first half hour in the Bernabeu it looked as though Real would be unable to break through the United rearguard. With the visitors playing a defensive 4-4-2 formation, the Spaniards were struggling to get past the two banks of four players that stood between them and the goal. Amancio had been well shepherded by United’s midfield terrier Nobby Stiles, but on 32 minutes he was finally able to escape from his opponents attentions as he prepared to take a free kick just outside the penalty area. As Amancio chipped the ball in towards the goal, Pirri appeared from nowhere to head it powerfully into the net and even up the aggregate scores.
Real then took over the game and produced the sort of football that they had played when ruling over the continent in past years. Amancio was now leaving Stiles trailing in his wake and was running the game. Within ten minutes of the opening goal, Real struck again. The veteran Gento, still playing on the wing for Real nearly twelve years after appearing for them in the first European Cup Final, seized on a long clearance just inside United’s half , swept past the defender, sped into the penalty area and hammered the ball into the corner of the net to score a spectacular and crucial goal. It looked as though that would be the end for United as Real were now completely on top, but the English side were about to be thrown a lifeline as Real’s Zoco sliced the ball into his own net just three minutes after his side had taken an overall lead. Within two minutes, however, Real were back in front as Amancio got free once more and shot his side into a 3-1 lead.
The Spaniards continued to dominate the match as it entered the second half, but gradually they began to tire and Manchester United started to claw their way back into the tie. The aggregate scores were levelled once again on 72 minutes when Best headed on a free kick and Sadler flicked the ball inside the post with his knee. With their tails up, the English side continued to press forward looking now for the winning goal. The crucial strike came just six minutes later and it was fitting that Bill Foulkes should be the man to finally put Manchester United into a European Cup Final. A survivor of the Munich Air Crash, Foulkes had played in three losing European Cup semi-finals for United and was now the oldest member of the side. On a draining and emotional night it was Foulkes who ran forward to latch onto a perfect pass from Best and side foot the ball into the corner of the net to level the scores on the night, and put his team on the brink of the final. This time Real could not come back and Manchester United had finally made it to the European Cup Final, and to cap it all, the final that year was to be played at Wembley Stadium where they would be roared on by tens of thousands of their own supporters.
Real Madrid v Manchester United
On a hot and humid May night in London, Wembley was packed to the rafters as Manchester United sought to become the first English side to win the European Cup. They were without star striker Denis Law, missing through injury, but they still had Best and Charlton in their ranks while Benfica looked to Eusebio, the giant Torres and Jose Augusto to provide the stroke of genius that might just win the match. With both sides normally wearing red shirts, they both wore a change kit with United in blue and Benfica in white.
The early stages of the game were dominated by the fear that each side had for their principle opponents. Following George Best’s performance in United’s thrashing of Benfica in Lisbon some two years earlier, it was understandable that one of coach Otto Gloria’s main priorities was to mark ‘El Beatle’ out of the game. Equally, Matt Busby knew that Eusebio was the man most likely to cause his side problems, so the hard tackling Nobby Stiles was instructed to keep ‘The Black Pearl’ quiet. With the two most skilful players being so tightly marked, the first half of the game was dull and uninspiring with brutal tackles being committed all over the pitch and neither side taking command, although Eusebio did escape Stiles once when he hit the bar. Eight minutes into the second half, however, the deadlock was broken. With the Benfica defence keeping so tight on Best, Bobby Charlton found himself in more space and it was he who rose to head a Sadler cross into the top corner of the net.
United had the lead, but Benfica were not broken, indeed as the game wore on they appeared to get stronger as they put more and more pressure on the United defence. Eventually, with just ten minutes remaining, the Portuguese side got their reward as Torres headed the ball across the area to the feet of Jaime Graca who beat Stepney in the United goal to level the scores. Benfica now showed the skill and poise that had seen them win two European titles in the past, and in the final moments of the game they almost scored the goal that would have won them their third European Cup. The game was in its dying moments when finally Eusebio broke free of Stiles and the rest of the English defence and found himself through on goal with just Stepney the goalkeeper to beat. It looked as though the most famous player in Portugal and Benfica’s history was about to seal a famous victory, but Stepney gambled on Eusebio wanting to blast the ball spectacularly into the net, so he stayed on his feet as long as possible. Sure enough, Eusebio smashed the ball as hard as he could, but saw it go straight into Stepney’s chest and away. Eusebio turned and patted Stepney on the shoulder to acknowledge the save, but he should have won the game for Benfica.
The final whistle that followed soon afterwards meant that the game was to go into extra time and, despite having just missed a glorious chance, Benfica still looked the stronger side as the United players slumped wearily on the Wembley turf. Appearances, however, were deceptive as Manchester United would take only ten more minutes to win the game. Two minutes into extra time it was George Best finally breaking free of the Benfica shackles, but unlike Eusebio moments earlier, he would take his chance. Latching onto a header from Kidd, Best skipped past one tackle, rounded Henrique in the Benfica goal and calmly slotted the ball into an empty net. A minute later and it was 3-1 as a penalty box free for all ended with Kidd heading into the goal. On 99 minutes, Bobby Charlton scored another headed goal as he guided a Kidd cross past Henrique, and the cup was United’s at last.
On the final whistle there were emotional scenes as survivors of the Munich disaster embraced tearfully. Twelve years on from that fateful night, Matt Busby’s dream of bringing the European Cup to Old Trafford had finally been realised. Many would argue that this team was not as good as the one destroyed in the snow and ice of Munich, but they had finished what those Busby Babes had started all those years ago and finally achieved the European ‘Holy Grail.’ Otto Gloria commented after the match: ‘Manchester United are very good and they had a big advantage at Wembley. Some of the Benfica players like Torres and Coluna felt some difficulty early on with knocks and could not produce the football they normally would. The title is in very good hands.’
It was fitting that Bobby Charlton, one of the Busby Babes who had survived to see this glorious night for Manchester United, should be the man to lift the European Cup. After Busby refused a request from some of his senior players to collect the cup himself, it was Charlton who held the trophy aloft to the roar of the tens of thousands of United fans squeezed into Wembley, including the relatives of those who had died at Munich and the survivors of the crash. United had finally achieved their dream, but they had also followed Celtic’s win for Scotland by bringing the European Cup to England for the first time. With the World Cup also residing in England, it seemed that the balance of footballing power in Europe had moved to the British Isles. Come the start of the next season, however, both Manchester United and Celtic would come up against the likes of Real Madrid, Benfica and AC Milan who would be anxious to reclaim Latin dominance. But for now United could bask in their glory and celebrate the final achievement of a dream begun by the legendary Busby Babes all those years ago.
1968 European Cup Final (London)
Manchester United 4 Benfica 1
Manchester United: Stepney, Brennan, Foulkes, Crerand, Dunne, Charlton (capt), Stiles, Best, Kidd, Sadler, Aston
Scorers: Charlton 2, Best, Kidd
Benfica: Henrique, Adolfo, Humberto, Jacinto, Cruz, Graca, Coluna (capt), Jose Augusto, Torres, Eusebio, Simoes
You can find details of all the results, dates and scorers on the RSSSF website here.