However, when the dust of six goals, two penalties and a red card settled, the prospects of anybody being able to see a quarter-final involving Manchester United come springtime were significantly reduced. A home draw, in a group this tight, is two points dropped. As if to emphasis just how close it is, Bayern Munich lost to Brondby in the other match.
United's next game, in a fortnight's time, is in Munich. It will be an emotional occasion but it can hardly be as dramatic as last night. Opening in spellbinding fashion United swept into a two-goal lead through Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Barcelona rallied to level by the hour with goals from Sonny Anderson and, with a penalty, Giovanni.
David Beckham's magnificent free-kick, put United back in front only for Luis Enrique to level again. That goal, from Barcelona's second penalty of the night, followed the dismissal of Nicky Butt for handball. He will now miss United's next two matches.
Having played the last 20 minutes with 10 men United were happy to gain a draw especially as Barcelona's revival invoked memories of the club's last Champions' League meeting, United's 4-0 drubbing at Nou Camp in late 1994.
United had five survivors from the 12 on duty that night, Roy Keane, Denis Irwin, Butt, Giggs and Scholes. All older and, with the possible exception of Irwin, better. With the restrictions on foreigners long discarded United are also stronger as a unit and, with Barcelona weakened by injury and ineligibility, appeared favourites.
Such a view seemed justified as United quickly dominated. Playing with an impressive tempo they did not allow Barcelona to settle on the ball and, having won it, attacked with pace and width. On the flanks David Beckham teased Sergi and Ryan Giggs tormented Luis Enrique, a striker drafted into defence in an move described by the watching Terry Venables as "not so much a gamble as suicidal".
United could have taken a lead inside but Beckham shot wildly over. It was a rare false move. On his next break he picked out Giggs with a deep cross to the far post. The Welshman pulled the ball back but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, off balance but only six yards out, thumped the ball against the crossbar.
No matter, Beckham had found his crossing range and a flowing move, taking in Irwin, Dwight Yorke and Solskjaer, led to him jinking past Sergi before crossing on the run. Giggs, arriving late, rose above Luis Enrique to head in like a centre-forward. Old Trafford burst into song, takeovers forgotten for the night.
Seven minutes later Beckham crossed with his left foot after Solskjaer had won possession. The cross was imperfect, falling behind Yorke, but he twisted to hit a stunning bicycle kick. Ruud Hesp made a sharp save but the ball cannoned off Luis Enrique to Scholes, who stabbed the ball in.
Gradually Barcelona regained their cool and, after 33 minutes, should have equalised. A deep cross caused problems and, after Gary Neville had failed to clear, Rivaldo drove in a shot off Scholes. Fortunately for United the `goal' was erroneously disallowed for offside.
Undaunted Barcelona pressed again and it took a fine save from Schmeichel to frustrate Anderson just before the break. He would not be denied and two minutes after the resumption the Brazilian took advantage of confusion in the United box to pull a goal back.
United were struggling, their passing lacked the crispness and conviction of earlier on. Barcelona, with Rivaldo pushed forward and Luis Enrique freed from defensive duties, took the game to them. In response Ferguson sent on Butt to stiffen the midfield.
Before he had time to make an impact, Barcelona were level. Anderson, running away from goal, went down under an unnecessary challenge from Jaap Stam. Giovanni converted the penalty.
A sense of doom filled the ground, a feeling that dreams were turning to dust. United needed to respond immediately and did as Yorke won a free-kick on the edge of the area. Beckham stepped up and, as against Colombia in the summer, whipped a curling shot inside the post.
At last. Old Trafford breathed again. But Barcelona were not finished.
The ball was worked into the United area, Anderson headed against the bar and, in an almighty scramble Butt handled Rivaldo's shot only for the rebound to be prodded in by Luis Figo. Three-all? Not quite. Referee Braschi had already blown for the handball. Butt received the red card and Luis Enrique banished his earlier nightmare by coolly despatching the spot-kick.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Stam, Irwin (P Neville, 79); Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs (Blomqvist, 84); Yorke, Solskjaer (Butt, 55). Substitutes not used: May, Cole, Sheringham, Van der Gouw (gk).
Barcelona (4-3-3): Hesp; Luis Enrique, Abelardo, Reiziger, Sergi; Giovanni (Xavi, 68), Cocu, Rivaldo; Figo, Anderson, Zenden. Substitutes not used: Oscar, Ciric, Okunowo, Roger, Vitor Baia (gk).
Referee: S Braschi (Italy).
Arsenal held, page 26Reuse content