By Panos Bletsos
It didn’t make headlines, but when Ryan Giggs came on for Javier Hernández in last Tuesday’s epic 3-2 win over Sporting de Braga he became the only Manchester United player to have featured at least once in all 19 of their UEFA Champions League campaigns. And it was always going to be him.
It all began on September 15, 1993, in Budapest, during United’s first game back in the former Champions’ Cup after a long 24 years… Thanks to a Roy Keane first-half double the Red Devils beat Honvéd 3-2 and their line-up included the likes of Peter Schmeichel, Bryan Robson and Éric Cantona. Giggs, 19 at the time, was substituted by Michael Phelan late on in the very first of his 140 Champions League outings.
United did the double over the Hungarians in the first round tie of that tournament, but they weren’t ready for glory yet, as their elimination at the hands of Galatasaray on away goals immediately afterwards clearly showed. Indeed they were again knocked out early the following year, when radical changes to the competition format allowed the English giants to get their first taste of group stage play. United finished third behind Göteborg and Barcelona, even though they had comprehensively beaten the Swedes 4-2 in the opening fixture. September 14, 1994 is another date Giggs will never forget, as he scored his first two Champions League goals.
After an embarrassing UEFA Cup first round beating by Russian outfit Rotor, once more on the away goals rule, Manchester United returned to the Champions League in 1996 – and that’s the only UEFA competition they’ve played in ever since. As years went by they grew stronger and stronger in Europe. And so did the Welshman, who made an impact on the continent for the first time that year, when he latched onto a Cantona through-ball to open the scoring in a 2-0 victory at Rapid Vienna in the final matchday of the group stage.
A Household Name
It was the result that sent United through at the expense of Fenerbahçe, beaten 2-0 by Juventus that same evening. However, Giggs was not kind enough to return the favour when La Vecchia Signora visited “Old Trafford” some 10 months later, in October 1997. The Bianconeri have been his preferred victims over the course of these past two decades, as he’s netted four past them – but perhaps his wonder left-footed strike from a tight angle which Angelo Peruzzi found impossible to deal with was the peak of his 29 Champions League goals to date. The great Zinedine Zidane pulled one back for the Italians immediately afterwards, but it was too little, too late, as United won 3-2 on the night.
Giggs amassed a total of five goals in his first four Champions League campaigns, but would go on to bag another five in only nine outings as the Red Devils went all the way in the competition for the first time in 31 years in 1999. By that time the Welshman was already a United mainstay and proved instrumental in their title-winning run, mostly thanks to that semifinal equalizer against (who else?) Juve on April 7 (1-1). Alex Ferguson’s men would of course go on to stage not one, but two sensational come-backs in both the second leg in Turin and the Barcelona final itself, but none of this would probably have happened if not for that 92nd minute “Old Trafford” strike by Giggsy.
Hungry for More
Despite winning the Holy Grail of European football the Welshman went on to amass 15 Champions League appearances in 2002-’03, his biggest turnover in a single season, and helped his side’s establishment as one of the continent’s major forces, with some crucial goals – sometimes controversial (that 83rd minute free-kick which Dutch referee Eric Braahmaar allowed and that produced the only goal of the game against Lille held in Lens, in February 2007), sometimes lucky (another set-piece of his took a huge deflection and went past Wolfsburg’s Diego Benaglio in a 2-1 home victory in September 2009), but always crucial.
It was thus no surprise that Ryan Giggs performed a leading role when United won the Champions League again. He did not find the back of the net in any of his nine outings, but on May 21, 2008, when his side faced Chelsea in that all-English final in Moscow it was the Welsh international who converted the winning penalty before Ed van der Sar saved Nico Anelka’s kick.
Four More Steps
The United appearances record holder came close to adding to his collection of Champions League winner’s medals twice more, but was denied by mighty Barcelona both in 2009 and in 2011. Last year the Red Devils faced an early exit from the tournament, but Giggs became the oldest player ever to score in a Champions League match when he slotted home for the equalizer in the 1-1 draw at Benfica on September 14, 2011. This time round United have been up to their usual standards and after winning all three of their games so far have set their sights on yet another Wembley visit come May. And who knows? If they make it that far perhaps the iconic Welshman will take the field as the Champions League appearances record holder too. You see, Raúl is playing in Qatar these days and he’s only four steps ahead…
Panos Bletsos has been a contributing writer to Soccer 365 for the past year or so, but has spent nearly two decades covering the Beautiful Game for a number of media, including Goal.com. Based in Greece, he also served as a Euro 2012 TV commentator for the public broadcast corporation ERT. You can follow him on Twitter @PanosBletsos.
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