Manchester United have a long and storied history when it comes to the UEFA Champions League (UCL) and its forerunner, the European Cup (EC). In this article, we will take a look at the club’s best and worst performances across both iterations of this brilliant competition. We’ll look at the last time they won it, each of their successes and we’ll also take a wider look at how they have got on when facing off against the top sides in Europe in this elite tournament.
Sir Alex Ferguson did great things for the club but one of his few regrets at the Red Devils was that he could not bring them closer to Liverpool in terms of success in this, the most prestigious club competition in world football. In some respects, United were unlucky to have peak-era, Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona as opponents. But even so, Fergie – and many United fans – feel they may have done better.
When Did Manchester United Last Win the Champions League?
United have struggled to win much at all in the post-Ferguson era and they have also struggled to even qualify for the Champions League, let alone win it. Nonetheless, their last success in this top-notch competition came in 2008. That year the much-vaunted front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the back proved too good for everyone, including Chelsea, who they beat on penalties in an incredible final.
Champions League Finals
United have appeared in the final of this illustrious pan-European showpiece several times. Their record is good overall, with three wins from five finals, though those two defeats came in quick succession, and to the same great side, multiplying the pain felt by all those connected to the club.
|2008||Chelsea||Won||6-5 on penalties (1-1 AET)|
|1968||Benfica||Won||4-1 in extra time (1-1 after normal time)|
Stage of Elimination
Below is a summary of the stage of the competition at which the Manchester giants were eliminated, considering all the seasons they qualified for and played in the European Cup and latterly the Champions League. The structure of this event, initially just for national champions and certain select sides, and latterly seeing up to five teams from a single country feature, has changed many times. As such, not all of the rounds were played in each campaign.
|Stage||Number of Times||Percentage|
|Round of 16||4||14%|
NB – the data provided is correct ahead of the 2023 UCL final (United did not play in the competition in 2022/23). Percentages are based on the total of European Cups/Champions Leagues that United qualified for and do not equal 100% due to rounding.
Times Manchester United Won the Champions League Cup
United have won the European Cup once and the Champions League twice, giving them three wins overall. The three successes came in three different eras in some regards, although Ferguson was in charge for the two most recent wins. A number of players played at least some part in the wins in 1999 and 2008, including Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and, perhaps most surprisingly, Wes Brown.
2008: United Beat Chelsea on Penalties in Moscow
The last time the Red Devils won this tournament was in the 2007/08 season and this was, for many United fans, the last truly brilliant side the club had. They would win a number of Premier League titles after this but lost the UCL finals in 2009 and 2011. Nonetheless, they will remember Moscow fondly, the fact they beat domestic rivals Chelsea in the final only making things sweeter.
As said, this brilliant United side had a front three that provided a little bit of everything and certainly had guts and heart aplenty. Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez all had skill, creativity, an eye for goal, pace and streetfighter spirit in slightly different proportions but the cumulative effect was mesmeric at times. With a spine that included Edwin van der Sar in goal, the brilliant Ferdinand-Vidic pairing at the back and Scholes in midfield this United team was probably as good as any they have ever had.
In 2007/08, they won the Premier League as well, but their win over Barcelona in the Champions League semi final may well have been the highlight. They edged the two-legged tie 1-0 thanks to a stunning strike from Paul Scholes, which you can see here! They showed a different side to their game in that match, defending with great heart and organisation against a Barca side that Ferguson truly respected.
The final was a dour game, Ronaldo scoring after 26 minutes before Frank Lampard equalised on the stroke of half time. The teams, who knew each other so well, could not be separated after extra time and so a shootout ensued. United, and indeed many neutrals, will remember the shootout fondly, John Terry slipping and missing the penalty that would have given his team glory, after Ronaldo had missed United’s third kick. Giggs scored a sixth spot-kick for the Reds before Nicolas Anelka missed and the trophy was United’s for a third time.
1999: Barcelona Miracle Delivers Unforgettable Triumph Against Bayern
If United’s third CL triumph was dramatic and memorable then their second victory in the competition must go down as one of the most amazing finishes to a game we have ever seen. Bayern Munich were the opponents, Barcelona’s football cathedral of the Nou Camp the venue, and the script would have been written off as too unbelievable if it had been pitched as a film.
The two teams had met at the group phase of the competition, Bayern edging things to top the group. Both teams had already completed domestic doubles, winning the league and primary cup competition and so one was about to secure a historic treble. It seemed certain to be the Germans, who had controlled much of the game despite it statistically being quite even. They led 1-0 from the sixth minute until the 91st and even hit the crossbar in the last seven or eight minutes.
However, with 30 seconds of a meagre three minutes of injury time played, Teddy Sheringham, who had come on as a substitute for Swede Jesper Blomqvist in the 67th minute, scored the equaliser. The goal followed a corner for which United keeper Peter Schmeichel had ventured into the Bayern box and then a mishit Ryan Giggs shot, which Sheringham controlled and instinctively finished into the bottom corner.
From the Bayern kick-off United almost instantly won another corner but this time the great Dane stayed back, the game seemingly set for extra time. David Beckham swung it in, Sheringham headed the ball across the face of goal and then Ole Gunnar Solskaer, on the pitch as an 81st-minute sub for Andy Cole, stuck out a foot… and the rest is history. Bayern were distraught, United fans, players and staff were in raptures and the Red Devils had their second Champions League title.
The final was so dramatic that some fans may have forgotten the high drama of the semis too. In the quarters United faced Inter Milan and progressed relatively easily, 3-1 on aggregate. In the semis the much tougher prospect of Juventus awaited, as the Italians were a top side at this time. United scraped a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in the first game thanks to an injury-time strike from Ryan Giggs that gave them at least some hope for the return.
However, they started terribly in Turin and after 11 minutes were two goals down on the night and in the tie. The Stadio delle Alpi was a cauldron but up stepped a warrior in red as Roy Keane, almost by force of will alone, dragged his side back into the game. The Irish midfielder was superb and he got a goal back on 24 minutes, Dwight Yorke making it 2-2 just 10 minutes later. With just a few minutes remaining Andy Cole secured a memorable win and made the miracle that would follow possible, though sadly Keane, booked in the first half of the game, was suspended for the final.
1968: Busy Babes Bust Benfica
United’s first success came when the competition was known as the European Cup and theirs was the first victory by an English side. Celtic had won the cup a year earlier but were defeated by Dynamo Kyiv in the first round. United beat Maltese team Hibernians at that stage, before seeing off Sarajevo and Polish side Gornik Zabrze.
A huge step up in class, and certainly reputation, awaited in the semis, as United played Real Madrid, winning 1-0 at home before a thrilling 3-3 draw in Spain put them into their first European Cup final. Benfica, who beat Juventus 3-0 on aggregate in the semis awaited and the Portuguese giants had the legendary Eusebio among their ranks, fresh from being crowned the top goalscorer at the 1966 World Cup. The Mozambique-born forward won the Ballon d’Or in 1965 and was runner-up twice, also helping Benfica to four European Cup finals (their only win with him came in 1962, though they had won it a year earlier too, without Eusebio).
The Portuguese striker ended the competition as its top scorer but United had stars of their own, most notably George Best and Bobby Charlton. They also boasted another World Cup winner from 1966 in Nobby Styles. Sadly Best’s Northern Ireland could never give him enough help for them to get to a major tournament but he was undoubtedly one of the best players on the planet at this time and the 1968 European Cup final was his time to show that.
The final took place at Wembley with more than 90,000 fans packed inside the stadium. In a scrappy first half Best was targeted and fouled on many occasions, the match 0-0 at the break. Early in the second half Charlton scored with a header but with just 11 minutes to go Jaime Graca equalised. Eusebio had late chances to win the game but United keeper Alex Stepney held firm and the clash went to extra time.
United would more or less dominate the additional period from start to finish, Best scoring an iconic goal after 92 minutes, future United assistant manager Bran Kidd making it 3-1 two minutes later with Charlton putting the game to bed inside the first period of extra time. The match finished 4-1 and the post-Munich rebuild was complete: United had become European champions.
Manchester United’s Worst Upsets
As said, Ferguson laments that his side were not able to win the trophy more often when they were at their best in the late 1990s and beyond. However, as we can see from the summary of United’s stages of elimination, they have generally performed respectably at least, making the quarters or better around two-thirds of the time.
That said, they have certainly suffered some very poor results here and there, one of the most notable being their defeat to Porto over two legs in 2004. United were expected to win easily, but the fact that Porto went on to lift the trophy under future United boss Jose Mourinho should give Red Devils at least some comfort.
Worse than this last 16 exit was United’s defeat to Swiss side Basel in 2011. It was the final group game and the 2-1 home win meant Ferguson’s side finished third behind Benfica and Basel. Given they had been runners-up in the previous season and in 2009, it really was a huge shock and a sign that this was a United side on the wane.