As shop windows go this was not the best advertisement for the talents of their coveted superstars. In front of an expectant Italian audience, Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs all failed to live up to their reputations.
They were not alone as United, bedevilled by defensive errors and attacking ineptitude, subsided to an ordinary Fiorentina team. Mistakes by Keane and Henning Berg handed goals to Gabriel Batistuta and Abel Balbo after 24 and 51 minutes and even the customary late rally could not rescue the holders.
To compound United's agony Keane, Beckham and Paul Scholes were all booked, but it could have been worse. Keane was lucky not to be dismissed.
It was not a good night for the United captain, who is expected to play in Serie A next season. While he was as busy as ever his touch let him down at vital moments and Rui Costa, with less possession, was far more influential.
Elsewhere in midfield, Beckham only got the better of Jorge Heinrich late on, while Giggs promised more than he delivered, running into blind alleys and crossing poorly. With Scholes fading after a bright start, there was little service to the front men and, though United had 60 per cent of the ball, they only managed seven shots compared to Fiorentina's 13.
There were no excuses. After the early-season problems with injuries and goalkeepers United were, for the first time in this Champions' League campaign, at full strength, Mark Bosnich having suffered no reaction to training on his injured knee.
With Valencia winning 3-0 at home to Bordeaux in the other Group B match, United's home tie against the Spanish club, their last before the Champions' League goes into a winter recess, is, said Sir Alex Ferguson, "a match we have to win".
He added: "We are always making it difficult for ourselves. Tonight was very, very frustrating, I didn't think we deserved to lose but at this level you have to make sure you make no mistakes, not even one. We controlled the match but made bad mistakes."
Giovanni Trapattoni, the Fiorentina coach, saw it differently. He said: "I know Manchester United very well and I knew what the sources of their game were. We did not let them play as they usually do.
"We read the game perfectly, we had worked on how and where to attack them and the early chances we had made us realise we could win."
The first of these was after 17 minutes when Rui Costa brought an excellent left-handed save from Bosnich, who had passed a late fitness test to play. Balbo, after a tame 30-yard shot, then wasted a good chance before Keane, having broken up an attack, unaccountably gave the ball straight to Batistuta, unmarked and 20 yards from goal. The gift was duly accepted.
Scholes, who had earlier shot just wide, forced Francesco Toldo to his knees to save as United surged forward. For 15 minutes they penned the Italians back, pressing on both wings, but they could not create a clear chance. The best they managed came when Toldo parried Beckham's free-kick for the ball to bounce, off Tomas Repka, on to the bar.
Meanwhile, Bosnich saved from Balbo and saw Heinrich shot over and wide before Berg, looking to pass inside from the right flank, was caught in possession by Batistuta. He advanced on goal, drawing Jaap Stam, before laying the ball back to his compatriot Balbo who thrashed it past Bosnich.
The chill Tuscan night was lit up with flares and "Argentina, Argentina" rang out from the Curva Fiesole. Languishing in mid-table in Serie A, this was more than the Violas had dreamed of.
Ferguson had had enough. Berg was withdrawn, Gary Neville moving to the centre, and the cavalry, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham, sent on.
This time there was no repeat of the miracle of Barcelona, instead both mis-kicked in good positions, as did Scholes, as United drew a rare blank.
Their frustration showed itself in silly bookings and Keane could have seen red as well as yellow. Having been cautioned for dissent, he twice pushed Aldo Firicano in the face as the match briefly boiled over, provoked by the reaction of home crowd and players to an injury to Alessandro Pierini. Batistuta, in turn, misses the next game after being cautioned for a challenge on Beckham.
United now travel to Japan, for the Toyota Intercontinental Cup against Copa America champions Palmeiras. Another Champions' League performance like this and they are unlikely to have to make this journey next year. Not that that will, this morning, be any consolation either.
Fiorentina (3-4-1-2): Toldo; Repka, Firicano, Pierini (Adani, 79); Torricelli, Di Livio (Rossitto, 67), Cois, Heinrich; Rui Costa; Batistuta, Balbo (Bressan, 79). Substitutes not used: Taglialatela (gk), Padalino, Amoroso, Tarozzi.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Bosnich; G Neville, Berg (P Neville, 63), Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Yorke (Solskjaer, 63), Cole (Sheringham, 63). Substitutes not used: Van Der Gouw (gk), Butt, Fortune, Higginbottom.
Referee: B Heynemann (Germany).
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