Two goals in five minutes just before the hour were enough to quell the keen but limited challenge of the Turkish champions, Fenerbahce. A return victory at Old Trafford in a fortnight's time, coupled with a Juventus win over Rapid Vienna, would ensure United's passage with two games to spare.
It was a night of vindication for Eric Cantona, who made the first goal for David Beckham and scored the second himself. Three years ago he had left Galatasaray's Ali Sami Yen Stadium, a few miles across this ancient city, in angry disgrace. He had been sent off, beaten by Turkish police, and been part of an innocuous United performance as they tumbled out of the Champions' Cup.
They may have been technically in Asia last night but, in terms of football geography, that barren run has been ended. It was a European display from the English champions. They were composed on the ball, kept their shape well, and broke with speed and stealth. Apart from a nervous first 20 minutes, they were almost always in control.
"It was a great performance," a delighted Alex Ferguson said. "The players can take confidence from tonight. They were able to express themselves. The first goal was marvellous. I don't want to pick anyone out as they were all superb. We are looking forward to the return."
The United manager can also be pleased with himself. This time he got his tactics right. With Gary Pallister's back injury having been eased after a good night's sleep on his imported bedboard, Ferguson was able to move Ronny Johnsen into midfield to pick up Jay Jay Okocha, Fenerbahce's Nigerian playmaker.
He also played three forwards, with Jordi Cruyff, who replaced the ankle- injury victim Ryan Giggs, being given a roving commission. The changes took a while to work, with Okocha initially having the run of the pitch. Poor finishing, and good goalkeeping from Peter Schmeichel, kept United in the game at this point as Fenerbahce, roared on by their supporters, carried the game to them.
The Fenerbahce stadium had been working itself into a frenzy when United arrived hours before kick-off but the atmosphere was less intense than either of the Galatasaray matches.
There was one memorable moment, an hour before kick-off, when the lights went off while Schmeichel was warming up. The crowd lit flares and newspapers as if at a rock concert. It was scenic but it had an unpleasant postscript as a few of the lighted papers were flung on to the tiny knot of Manchester United fans sitting below. The travelling Reds were unimpressed but, hemmed in by riot police, were unable to do much about it.
Later the police came to their aid as plastic water bottles were thrown at them in the wake of United's goals. The police prevented a repetition, not that it doused the fans' celebrations.
They had good reason to cheer, because United's goals were excellent and well earned. After that uncertain start, United gained their composure, controlling the match either side of half-time. This frustrated Fenerbahce, a mood revealed by a nasty kick at Neville by Bulent Uygun, and a tendency to push men forward. Too many men, it transpired, as, after 55 minutes, Johnsen won the ball from Okocha with Fenerbahce committed. Cantona immediately released Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a sweet diagonal pass. By the time the Turkish side recovered, Beckham was in position to receive the ball and score. It was his sixth goal of the season, United's best of the evening.
Four minutes later Cantona added the second. Solskjaer's back-heel found Cruyff on the left and he pulled the ball back with precision for his captain to score. With Schmeichel and his defence, notably Pallister, in command the contest was over.
Even Fenerbahce's public address announcer fell silent. He had earlier issued bursts of music and exhortations from the Tannoy, along the lines of "Come on you Canaries", a reference to Fenerbahce's nickname. Queen's "We Will Rock You" also blasted out, although the fans replaced "rock you" with a more emotive phrase. It was a bizarre experience and at half- time he was silenced by the Spanish referee and Uefa observer as effectively as United hushed the crowd.
At the end, Cantona passionately punched the air. Ferguson turned to salute the travelling support. The long journey home beckoned once more but, this time, no one was complaining.
However, the trip was soured by stone throwing as the team bus headed for the airport under police escort. A stone broke a window, showering glass on the Neville brothers, Scholes and Thornley. None was hurt and United do not intend to take the matter further.
Fenerbahce (4-4-2): Rustu; Ilker, Okechukwu, Hogh, Ibrahim; Bulent (Erol, 64), Kemalettin, Tuncay (Aygun, 82); Okocha; Bolic, Kostadinov (Tarik, 82). Substitutes not used: Fevzi (gk), Saffet.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Johnsen, Butt; Cantona, Solskjaer, Cruyff (Poborsky, 72). Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Scholes, McClair, Thornley.
Referee: M Diaz Vega (Spain).
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