Many have already flocked to Old Trafford over the past few days following the death of Sir Bobby Charlton, but tonight’s visit of Copenhagen in the Champions League offers the masses a chance to pay tribute.
“With the passing of Sir Bobby Charlton, their hero and the legend, [the night] will be more emotional,” Erik ten Hag said. Charlton defined United for many. Then, as the club lost its way, he defined what it should stand for: flair on the field, dignity and humility off it. “The standards he set, they were emphasised in the last couple of days,” added Ten Hag.
Old Trafford is testament to Charlton’s life and legacy, as well as to the importance of Europe to United. There are stands named after only two men: Charlton, the 1968 European Cup-winning captain, and Ferguson, the manager of the teams who won the Champions League in 1999 and 2008.
The Munich Tunnel commemorates Charlton’s tragic teammates, the eight players who died after the 1958 plane crash which, miraculously, he survived. The statue of the club’s ‘Holy Trinity’ outside the ground celebrates the three glorious goalscorers who elevated United to the peak of European football in the 1960s, a decade after Sir Matt Busby had first tried to conquer the continent. Charlton was one of them. “He is in front of Old Trafford with Denis Law and George Best,” reflected Ten Hag. “He is always with us.”
Some comparisons with distant days are invidious, some irrelevant. The competition is very different these days and Charlton could only play in the European Cup when United had either won it or the old Division 1. But that still gave him five forays, and they all went deep. Most famously, United triumphed in 1968.
But they were also semi-finalists in 1957, Charlton scoring in the last four against Real Madrid, 1958, when he missed both legs as a team depleted by the tragedy in Munich lost to AC Milan, 1966, losing to Partizan Belgrade, and 1969, when Charlton’s goal against the Rossoneriproved United’s last in the competition for 24 years.
Busby reached five semi-finals in five attempts. Ten Hag is United’s fifth manager since Ferguson – the sixth if the interim Ralf Rangnick is included – and none has reached a semi-final. There have only been two quarter-finals, one under David Moyes, one reached when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in caretaker charge. For now, such has been United’s stumbling start to the season, a place in the last-16 would seem a success of sorts.
Pointless after two defeats, United prop up Group A. Copenhagen’s minnows are above them. If a doubleheader against Hojlund’s first club offers an opportunity, there is also the potential for embarrassment. Certainly, the 3-2 loss to Galatasaray gives United little margin for error. “We have to win every game. If you lose the first two games, you have to win,” said Ten Hag.
Perhaps his best chance of victory lies with the man whose brothers are on Copenhagen’s books and, in one case, should be on the bench. It is a reunion for Hojlund, a family affair. “When you have a little bit of empathetic ability then you know it is a special game for him,” Ten Hag said. “He grew up there at this club and you know he will be highly motivated.”
Thus far, the signs that Rasmus Hojlund could justify his £72m fee have been seen in Europe. He is yet to score in the Premier League but opened his account in the Allianz Arena. A tour de force against Galatasaray could have made him a match-winner but for United’s self-destructive streak. Instead, he is the tournament’s joint top scorer. “Against Galatasaray it was definitely two brilliant goals as well as the one in Munich,” said Ten Hag. “He is always in scoring positions in our team.”
Striker Hojlund is following in famous footsteps. A centre-forward has been granted the No 11 shirt that, for much of the first half of his United career, was Charlton’s; he may yet gravitate to wear the No 9, which the scorer of 249 goals for the club subsequently wore.
The most famous two of those goals came in the 1968 European Cup final. They were at Wembley, which will host this year’s Champions League final. Yet if United have still greater motivation to reach it, first they have to display the competence to get out of the group. And for a club shrouded in history, a European campaign beginning with three consecutive defeats would be a historic low.
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