Neil Humphreys: Spirit of '99 is United's only chance
United manager's cliched never-say-die attitude of Red Devils is their best weapon against Barca
Manchester United's greatest night at the Nou Camp was almost 20 years ago, but there's little chance of any one forgetting the anniversary, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems to bring it up almost every 20 minutes.
He was at it again this week, reminiscing about the spirit of 1999 in the way that sentimental retirees lament the demise of the kampung spirit.
In the year of the Treble, the Red Devils challenged one another in training every day, he said. They fought. They kicked one another. They killed one another and Roy Keane danced on the dead men's graves.
Or something like that.
Solskjaer is at risk of lapsing into parody at press conferences. He seems drunk on the spirit of 1999, only one speech away from wearing a Sir Alex Ferguson mask and vowing to knock rivals off their "f****** perches".
When he's winning, it's endearing. If he starts losing, the spirit of 1999 shtick might become excruciating. But it's still probably his most potent weapon ahead of Barcelona's visit to Old Trafford (tomorrow morning).
By any rational analysis, the Red Devils can't win. Barcelona are unbeaten in 16 games and recently strolled to a 2-0 victory against Atletico Madrid, their distant rivals in La Liga.
United have lost three of their last four games and can't beat Wolverhampton Wanderers, stumbling to a pair of 2-1 losses against the mid-table side.
Never mind Lionel Messi, Solskjaer's patched-up defence couldn't handle Diogo Jota.
But the Norwegian's addiction to nostalgia, focusing on the guts and glory of past campaigns like a punchy war veteran, is a worthwhile move when the past is more palatable than the present.
Why focus on the prospect of Nemanja Matic or Scott McTominay chasing Messi's slipstream, when Solskjaer can play his greatest hits and make whimsical parallels between 2019 and 1999?
It's Barcelona now. It was the Nou Camp then, in that historic Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
On paper, it sounds almost silly, but he played the 1999 card long enough to extend his honeymoon, earn himself the full-time gig and defeat Paris Saint-Germain along the way.
But his constant call-backs to United's most successful period and their "never-say-die" attitude are more than just cynical attempts to lift morale. It's a calculated strategy.
When he scored 29 goals from the bench - a club record - Solskjaer learnt first-hand from a manager's belief that a late goal was no fluke.
Pressing high and taking - reasonable - risks, suits Solskjaer's philosophy against Barcelona more so than Wolves, who defended deeply and denied United their quick transitions.
Barcelona are more open and hold a high defensive line - their 4-4 draw against Villarreal was a madcap display of endless attacking and negligible defending - and rarely keep a clean sheet.
They have conceded in five of their eight Champions League games, suggesting chances will present themselves, as long as United take on board Solskjaer's carpe diem stories about the glory days and go for broke.
Of course, the endeavour is not without risk.
Apart from the obvious drawback - United are more likely to concede in such an open contest - the spirit of 1999 has arguably been perfected at Barcelona.
When Solsjkaer watched the Catalans defeat Atletico at the Nou Camp, he saw history repeat itself in the same place with a different team. There were two goals. Late goals. Luis Suarez and Messi scored in the 85th and 86th minutes.
They were not exceptional strikes. Barcelona have found the net six times after the 80th minute in the Champions League.
Goals have gone in during the final 10 minutes in more than half of their La Liga games.
Late goals are commonplace among the Catalans. They have cornered the market in terms of dogged persistence and mental durability, epitomising the very qualities that Solskjaer demands of his own players.
He can champion United's historic fighting qualities, but there's every chance that Barcelona may bring the spirit of 1999 to the Old Trafford party.
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