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In November 1993, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team needed to win to avoid a shock exit. Amid a hostile atmosphere, which began the moment the plane touched down in Turkey, they could only draw 0-0. United return to Istanbul this week in a similar situation with their Champions League campaign hanging by a thread.
They’re in this position, in part, because of a 3-2 defeat to Galatasaray at Old Trafford in October, a performance that summed up United’s season so far. The game was littered with defensive mistakes, a lack of mental strength in key moments and, ultimately, it was another poor result. The 3-0 win at Everton on Sunday was a step in the right direction, but there was still a spell in the first half at Goodison Park when United appeared destined to concede.
Worryingly for Erik ten Hag and his staff, playing on that nervousness formed part of Galatasaray’s game plan ahead of their game in Manchester.
“We saw that Manchester United have good ideas, but they are struggling sometimes when they are facing a team with that high intensity in the pressing,” Galatasaray assistant Ismael Garcia Gomez says in an exclusive interview with ESPN. “In the games we saw, they had difficulties. Especially in the first half when things aren’t going well, we could tell even by video that the players were getting a bit nervous because it’s not simple. It’s what I saw at Old Trafford too.
“The stadium and the fans were fantastic, but you can feel in the environment that things are not going well and sometimes this can block the players. The players that they have are high quality, but when there is a block, it’s difficult.”
United twice led against their Turkish opponents, but were twice pegged back and with the score at 2-2, André Onana tried to play out from the back in a sequence that ended with United losing possession close to their own penalty area, Casemiro conceding a penalty and then being sent off. Mauro Icardi missed from the spot, but scored three minutes later to win the game.
“The idea was to set a high tempo in the pressing and force mistakes,” Garcia added. “Not expect mistakes, but to force mistakes. That high pressing also made us concede situations and the first [United] goal is because of that.
“In Spain we say ‘the blanket cannot cover everything’ and if you want to force mistakes like we did with the penalty and the red card for Casemiro, also we might face the situation we had when United scored for 1-0. They have quality players. If the ball isn’t always covered in our pressing, they put the ball into the space, they have good runners and clinical finishers. We want to take the risk and we didn’t plan to go 1-0 down, but we planned to put United in difficulty when they had possession.”
Part of the calculated risk, according to Garcia, was to attack Marcus Rashford.
Rashford set up United’s first goal for Rasmus Højlund, but in the end he had such a rough night that he was substituted before the 70-minute mark. He’s suspended for the return game in Istanbul after he was sent off in the 4-3 defeat to FC Copenhagen, another result that contributed to United fighting for their lives in the Champions League.
“In possession, we wanted to exploit a lot Rashford’s side and attack him a lot,” Garcia said. “If you saw the game, we attacked a lot with [full-back] Sacha Boey. But this is tricky because if we don’t do well, then there is a potential for transitions. We tried to be brave and go 100% to win.
“What is better: to prevent the transitions for Rashford or to attack him? I don’t know. It’s about doing what you believe and forcing mistakes, putting the opponent in a difficult or tricky situation. You take risks and sometimes it goes against you, but it’s what we believe.”
Galatasaray plan to make things uncomfortable for United again on Wednesday as they eye their own place in the round of 16 of the Champions League for the first time since 2013-14.
Back in 1993, after a 3-3 draw between the teams at Old Trafford, Galatasaray manager Reiner Hollmann warned Ferguson and his players “they’ll be waiting for you at the airport” ahead of the second leg in Turkey, and he was right. Fans crowded the arrivals hall at the airport and spent the night outside the team hotel making so much noise that the players couldn’t sleep. There were even stories of hotel employees using broom handles to bang on the walls of neighbouring rooms.
After an ill-tempered goalless draw that knocked United out of the competition, there was a brawl in the tunnel involving players and staff from both teams, as well as Turkish police armed with batons and holding Rottweilers on chains. United forward Eric Cantona, sent off after the final whistle, was punched by a policeman and captain Bryan Robson ended up covered in blood courtesy of a huge cut on his arm suffered in the melee.
The atmosphere isn’t quite so intense in 2023, but Istanbul on a European night remains a tough place to play and there’s a reason why United have never beaten Galatasaray away in three previous attempts.
“It’s a big club with massive importance in the city and the country,” Garcia says. “I’ve been lucky enough to be in Serie A, in Spain and in Greece but I say to friends, don’t come here to watch Galatasaray: come for the atmosphere. It’s amazing. Amazing. There are some great players who say that Galatasaray is the most difficult atmosphere they have played in. That says a lot.
“We are not going to speculate about what might happen in the last game [of the groups] so I think it’s going to be a very open game, like it was at Old Trafford. I don’t think either team will say ‘maybe a draw and then see what happens in the last game.’ No. Both teams have a chance to go through, so it should be an exciting game.”
United, bottom of the group after three defeats from four games, have no alternative but to try to win. Do it, and they’ll be able to see a route into the knockout rounds. Anything less than victory, however, and Galatasaray will have inflicted another hellish memory.