March 5th, 2013
With Manchester United’s Champions League glamour tie with Real Madrid hanging in the balance, it is the perfect time to relive the European heroics of one of their best-ever players, George Best.
The Northern Irish attacker played a key role in success on the continent for the Old Trafford club, and Sir Alex Ferguson would be glad to have a player of Best’s match-winning ability to call upon in the second leg of the last 16 tie against the Spanish champions.
Here are George’s most memorable and electric European performances in the famed red shirt, which still are remembered vividly by avid Red Devils’ followers.
‘O Quinto Beatle’; Manchester United vs Benfica, Estadio da Luz, 9 March 1966
Best’s considerable abilities had been recognised and hailed domestically after the winger helped United to the title in 1964-65, however it was not until the 1965-66 season that the rest of the world became fully aware of the Belfast Boy.
Best hit the headlines with a devastating performance and two goals against powerhouses Benfica, in a 5-1 win at the quarter-finals stage of the European Cup in 1966. A header and a magnificent solo effort by Best had the Portuguese press labelling him as O Quinto Beatle, or the Fifth Beatle.
The fact that Benfica had reached the European Cup final four out of the previous five years, winning the competition twice, made United’s victory and Best’s performance all the more admirable.
“Perhaps it was because I was so wrapped up in my performance. I barely remember half-time, except for the fact that we were celebrating and Matt Busby was trying to tell us that we had to be careful, that it wasn’t over. But after Shay Brennan knocked in an owngoal, Pat Crerand and Bobby Charlton both scored in the second half and we had an unbelievable 5-1 win. It was surreal stuff. To be a part of such an experience was unreal.”
An extract from George Best’s autobiography, Blessed.
The road to Wembley; the 1967-68 European Cup campaign
Manchester United were crowned champions of Europe in 1968, however the road to Wembley through the competition saw the Old Trafford team contest some tight games, with a certain Northern Irish attacker the difference between progression and elimination.
Best played a crucial role in the 2-1 win over Yugoslavian outfit Sarajevo, with the attacker providing an assist for the opener and scoring the crucial second himself. A 2-1 win over Polish club Górnik Zabrze was followed by a mouth-watering clash with Real Madrid in the semi-finals.
In the first leg of the tie Best scored the only goal of the game to give his side a 1-0 lead. At the Bernabeu Best played a telling pass to allow Bill Foulkes to score an all-important equaliser, with the match finishing 3-3 and the English side progressing through to the final on aggregate.
Champions; Manchester United vs Benfica, 1968 European Cup final
Benfica were United’s opponents in the 1968 final, with the Portuguese team full of respect for the Old Trafford side and their talisman Best. With Eusebio the main threat, the scores were tied at 1-1 after full-time. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; Best stepped up to etch his name into United folklore.
Three minutes into extra-time the talented forward scored a wonderful individual effort to give United the lead. A mazy run cut the Portuguese defence to ribbons, before Best dummied past the Benfica goalkeeper and tucked the ball home.
Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton sealed victory as Benfica pushed forward in search of an equaliser, and the United fans went into rapture. Best went on to be awarded the Ballon d’Or later in 1968.
With United looking to be crowned champions of Europe for the fourth time, a hero from Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad must step forward. The Red Devils beat Real Madrid on their journey to glory in 1967-68, with Best proving the difference between two top teams; hopefully Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie or one of the other United attackers can follow in the great man’s footsteps.