United meet Internazionale tonight and precedent does not coincide with the confident noises. They have won the Champions and the Cup-Winners' Cups and have been playing in Europe for more than 40 years, but not once have they prevailed in a two-legged tie against an Italian side.
Four times United have gone out to Italian clubs and even in their encounters with Juventus in the Champions' League in 1996 and 1997 they would have lost had the normal knock-out rules applied. Spaghetti Junction, in their case, has led to an exit.
Where United have failed, others have succeeded although the balance remains in the Latins' favour. There have been exciting Anglo-Italian nights and one, Heysel, so dreadful football recoiled in shame.
To dwell on the positive, here are memorable ties from the five decades of European club competition when England's finest have met Italy's with mixed results.
European Cup semi-final Manchester Utd 2 Milan 1
Milan 4 Manchester Utd 0
(Milan won 5-2 on aggregate)
Five days after United had lost the FA Cup final to Bolton, three months after Munich and the football world could not have done more for the club. Apart from England and Milan that is.
With insensitivity that beggars belief even at a distance of 40 years, England insisted Bobby Charlton went on a pre-World Cup tour and missed out on a semi-final that had been gained by the last act of the team destroyed in the crash. With him United might have done enough in the first leg, without him there was little hope.
"I think we had run out of emotional steam," recalled Bill Foulkes, a United defender for 21 years, but there was still enough there for Ernie Taylor to win the first match with a penalty 11 minutes from time after Dennis Viollet had been fouled by a future Italian manager, Cesare Maldini.
"I have never seen a crowd set alight with the flame of victory as this Old Trafford," Terence Elliott of the Daily Express wrote, but resentment also burned in the Milan players who disliked United's robust tackling and the award of what they judged an unfair penalty.
The price was paid in Milan, where they were bombarded with vegetables thrown from the crowd. "I remember being hit by cabbages and the biggest bunch of carrots I've ever seen," Foulkes said. "They hurt, too."
So did the tackles, and United were brushed aside by a combination of brute force, a lenient referee and the brilliance of Milan's pounds 75,000 (then an astonishing sum) Uruguayan centre-forward Schiaffino, who scored twice.
"It was a terrible experience," Foulkes said. "Milan had a good team and they crushed us in the second half. Most of us were glad in the end to settle for 4-0."
European Cup semi-final
Liverpool 3 Internazionale 1
Internazionale 3 Liverpool 0 (Inter won 4-3 on aggregate)
In his autobiography Bill Shankly described the second leg as "a war" and one that left the defeated army bitter that they had been cheated. The first match though was one of the great Anfield nights.
Liverpool had won at Wembley on the Saturday and Shankly, never one to miss out on propaganda, got the injured Gerry Byrne and Gordon Milne to parade the FA Cup round the ground as Inter, the world and European champions, took the field.
That whipped up an already excited 54,000 crowd who within 11 minutes saw Roger Hunt score and Mazzola equalise. Ian Callaghan restored the lead and Ian St John made it a two- goal margin so that by the end the Kop was singing "Oh Inter, one, two, three. Go back to Italy" to the tune of "Santa Lucia".
The smiles of that night soon ended in the San Siro. A church bell tolled opposite the Liverpool hotel disturbing the players' sleep and the game itself had a horrible atmosphere with rockets raining down on the visitors.
"As for the referee," the Liverpool captain, Ron Yeats, recalled, "he signalled an indirect free-kick and when the ball went straight into the net he gave a goal. The second came after the ball had been kicked out of Tommy Lawrence's hands. The third goal was fair enough, but what a way to win a match."
Shankly had believed Liverpool would be the first English club to win the European Cup that year but swallowed his disappointment. "See what you've done," he told his players as they listened to the extravagant celebrations, "these people are going mad because they're so pleased to beat Liverpool. That's the standard you have raised yourselves to."
Uefa Cup semi-final
Tottenham 2 Milan 1
Milan 1 Tottenham 1
(Tottenham won 3-2 on aggregate)
When Alex Ferguson complains of fixture congestion refer him to this. Tottenham played on Good Friday, Saturday and Easter Monday and by the time their weary players faced Milan it was their fourth game in six days.
Bill Nicholson needed every resource he had and Alan Mullery, who was on loan to Fulham and seemingly on his way out of White Hart Lane, was recalled to replace John Pratt, who had broken his nose. It would prove an inspired decision.
The first leg has gone down in north London legend as Steve Perryman's match. He would go on to make 655 League appearances for Spurs and was still playing for the club 14 years later, but it was for this game, at the age of 20, that he is fondly remembered.
Milan had taken the lead through Benetti on the counter and Tottenham's attack, understandably given the hard labour, was weary and predictable. Then Perryman struck with an opportunist shot from the edge of the penalty area.
At 1-1 and time running out the result was still favourable to Milan, but Perryman would strike again even more extravagantly. Mullery's corner was cleared, but he caught the ball on the bounce and from 35 yards volleyed into the far corner.
At the San Siro the tie was put further out of reach of the Italians within seven minutes. Perryman made to shoot but passed instead to Mullery, whose effort on the run curved high round the Milan goalkeeper. It would prove the decisive goal.
"You played a real team game," Eddie Bailey, Nicholson's assistant, shouted with delight as the players returned to the dressing-room. "That's great," Martin Peters replied before turning to his rarely satisfied manager. "Now I want to hear Bill say the same."
The board had promised the players' wives, who had not been in Milan, they would definitely travel for the two-legged final and they kept their word. They went to Wolverhampton.
European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final
Manchester Utd 1 Juventus 1
Juventus 2 Manchester Utd 1
(Juventus won 3-2 on aggregate)
They still sell videos at Old Trafford of the game that got United into the semi-finals, a pulsating 3-0 win over a Barcelona team which included Maradona and who had established a 2-0 first-leg lead. The euphoria of that night had dissipated two weeks later, however, because Bryan Robson and Arnold Muhren were injured and Ray Wilkins suspended so the midfield that had to take on Michel Platini et al included two defenders, Paul McGrath and John Gidman.
"I could only say to the lads `run your guts out and fight for every ball then it might just happen for us,'" remembers Ron Atkinson, then the United manager, and that looked even less likely when Paulo Rossi got a deflected goal after a quarter of an hour.
Alan Davies, who would tragically commit suicide in the Nineties, equalised 10 minutes before half-time and when Norman Whiteside did the same in the second leg in Turin Atkinson believed a famous victory would be his.
"It was the first goal the Italians had conceded on their own ground in the competition and I thought at that stage we were stronger and fitter. If we had made it to extra time I think we'd have run them off their feet."
Instead, with a minute to go Zbigniew Boniek rolled the ball into Rossi's stride and he won the match for Juventus with a low shot past Gary Bailey's left hand.
"Rossi showed why he was one of the most accomplished goalscorers in the world," Atkinson said. "But I still think if we'd had a full squad for the two legs we'd have been in the final."
European Cup Winners' Cup final
Arsenal 1 Parma 0
They sing anthems at Highbury to results like this but few one-nils are as cherished. Anfield '89 may have books and films based on it, but a sound argument could be made for picking this as the finest hour and a half of George Graham's Gunners.
Arsenal's Premiership season had fizzled out into two wins in eight matches and when Ian Wright, who scored 34 goals that season, had to miss the Copenhagen final along with John Jensen, David Hillier and Martin Keown their prospects against the holders and overwhelming favourites were not promising.
The Parma team looked formidable then but subsequent familiarity has added to their lustre because the Italian side that night included Gianfranco Zola, Faustino Asprilla and Tomas Brolin. Deprived of his leading scorer and his ball-winning grafters, Graham adopted a 4-5-1 formation with splendidly stoic results.
Brolin hit a post in an early Italian flurry but once this storm had been weathered Arsenal calmly wrested control and took the lead after 20 minutes. Alan Smith, the lone striker, pounced on an extravagant failed attempt at an overhead clearance by Lorenzo Minotti and ran on to shoot past Luca Bucci via the post.
The Italians withdrew Pin, their principal midfielder, with 20 minutes remaining the battle had been won. "Tactically and technically we did not function," Nevio Scala, the Parma manager, said. "This was because Arsenal were the better team." Sweet words on a sweeter night.Reuse content