The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Di Stefano recalls a rivalry steeped in history

Manchester: Alfredo Di Stefano believes Tuesday’s Champions League clash between Real Madrid and Manchester United will provide another fascinating chapter in the shared history of two of Europe’s greatest clubs.

“We are talking about a really historic confrontation here between two clubs that have had great affection for each other for a long time,” Di Stefano said in an interview.

Di Stefano, who starred for the glittering Real side that won five successive European Cups between 1956 and 1960, was in Manchester this week, overseeing the delivery of the European Cup trophy from the holders to Old Trafford where this year’s final will take place on May 28.

When the draw was made for the quarter finals last month, many regretted that Real and United were paired at this stage of the competition. The prospect of a first European Cup final between the two at Old Trafford would have been the dream final.

Still, the fact they are meeting again had Di Stefano fondly recalling the first game between the teams in competition nearly half-a-century ago.

Recalling the 1950s when Real reigned supreme, Di Stefano spoke with great affection for United’s “Busby Babes” team of the era, so many of whom were to lose their lives as a result of the 1958 air crash at Munich.

United manager Matt Busby was building a team to challenge Real’s position as the first true giants of the fledgling European club competition game.

Real won the inaugural European Cup in 1956 and met Manchester United in the semi-finals the following season. Real won 3-1 at home with Di Stefano scoring their second goal in the first leg.

The second leg in Manchester ended in a 2-2 draw to give Real a 5-3 aggregate victory and they went on to defend their title beating Fiorentina 2-0 in the final in their own stadium a month later.

Di Stefano, who will be 77 in July, sees many similarities in both of today’s star-studded squads to that golden era which still retains a special place in soccer folklore.

“I think it says a great deal that people still talk about the games we played against each other so long ago, because they made history in their own right.

“We have had the good fortune to play them in the European Cup and friendly matches down the years and here we are again, with both clubs top of the tree in their respective countries.”

United avenged the 1957 loss by beating Real in 4-3 on aggregate in the 1968 semi-final before going on to beat Benfica in the final at Wembley.

The stars of that United team were Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton, although Law missed the 1968 final through injury.

Indeed, individual stars have been the jewel in both club’s crowns down those trophy-laden years.

Di Stefano was the inspiration behind Real Madrid’s five successive European Cups, scoring in each of the first four finals and adding a hattrick in the fifth — a 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960 in one of the greatest games of all time.

He believes that today’s stars such as Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos and Luis Figo — proudly carry Real’s tradition of rich individual greatness into the new era.

“Real has always striven to maintain its traditions and what you can say about the current team is that it has been built on the foundations we laid at that time,” he said. “It is a continuation of our triumphs that the club has built over the years, starting in the 1950s.

“Good players fit in anywhere. I have never heard of a good player that has not fitted into a good team — and with both Real and Manchester United we are talking about teams that have not changed much throughout the years.

“When we played in the 1950s, there were so many players on each side that could decide matches on their own.

“Now, in 2003, we can look at the two teams and say exactly the same. To compare individual talents between the 1950s and present day may be dangerous, but the over-riding principle remains.”

Di Stefano, who many people still consider to be one of the greatest players of all time, added: “I see this as a 50/50 tie. “The two clubs are both aware of each other’s history, but the one thing I believe we can guarantee is that they will both be spectacular matches.”

Former Old Trafford striker Law, who said recently he expected United to be competing in the Champions League “for the next 50 years” is also licking his lips in anticipation of the battle of the two European heavyweights, the first leg of which will be held in Spain on Tuesday.

“It’s just unfortunate that we have drawn each other at this stage,” said the 63-year-old Scot. “It would have been a perfect final to have Real Madrid play Manchester United at Old Trafford, but it was not meant to be. A little bit of luck could decide the outcome, but I believe whoever wins this particular tie will go on and win the Champions League.”

Which is what has happened every time they have met in Europe. Real beat United and became European champions in 1957, United did likewise in 1968 and Real kept the sequence alive when they beat United in the 2000 quarter-finals en route to the eighth of their nine successes. (agencies)

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