United played better last night than when they lost to Fenerbahce, but they were playing a better team, a much better team. Juventus were polished, silky even; cool in defence, imaginative in midfield, penetrating in attack. Their movement was exceptional.
Even if United qualify for the latter stages - and, despite three defeats in five games, they still can - they now know how far they remain off Europe's gold standard.
Fortunately for United their remaining Group C fixture is against a less illustrious side, Rapid Vienna, who, in the words of their own goalkeeper, "filled their pants" in fright when they came to Old Trafford.
A draw on 6 December could send United through, but they would need Juventus to beat Fenerbahce in Turin on the same night. United would then progress by virtue of better results between the two clubs - they won 2-0 in Istanbul; Fenerbahce won 1-0 at Old Trafford.
If United lose - or Fenerbahce win - the English champions are out. If Fenerbahce gain a draw, United would need to win. They would then meet Porto in the quarter-finals.
United were unlucky last night but they contributed to their misfortune in a thrilling match. They lost to a 35th-minute penalty by Alessandro Del Piero, who had lured Nicky Butt into tripping him just inside the area. It was a moment's naivety. He will be better for the experience but that is little consolation this morning.
United also had to reorganise after losing Phil Neville after 13 minutes. With Denis Irwin and Gary Pallister injured, Alex Ferguson, the United manager, had no defenders on the bench, so he brought on Brian McClair and moved Roy Keane into defence.
Keane was magnificent there, but he was wasted. This was the moment, if United had real pretensions to play with the best, that they should have switched to a three-man defence. With Juventus playing only Alen Boksic and Del Piero in attack this would have given United numerical superiority in midfield.
There was no faulting United's support; standing room only at both ends and lusty choirs all around. A wall of sound it may have been but it was soon apparent that it was not going to intimidate Juventus.
United started brightly but were soon chasing black-and-white striped shadows as the Italians moved the ball around with pace and panache. The zebra pack was led by a balding Frenchman, Zinedine Zidane, who strolled about the midfield as if he, not Cantona, was Old Trafford's dieu. It was not hard to see why Aime Jaquet, the French national coach, prefers the Juventus player.
And all the while Boksic and Del Piero prowled the back line like a pair of panthers as they sought to spring the offside trap.
Yet it was not all Juventus. In the early stages United produced more attempts on goal. But - Ryan Giggs apart - their efforts seemed laboured.
All the same, had David May headed under the bar from David Beckham's corner, Giggs inside the post from Brian McClair's cross, or Beckham connected with Cantona's cross-shot, no one would have been worrying about artistic impression.
Then Zidane began a sweeping move which ended with Del Piero accepting Nicky Butt's invitation to fall over his outstretched leg. The Spanish referee, who was well-placed, had no doubt. Nor did Del Piero, who thumped the penalty high into the roof of the net.
Cantona, who had seemed less inspired by the tricolours than Zidane and Didier Deschamps, then spurned the chance to equalise. Beautifully released by Giggs, he advanced on Angelo Peruzzi, hesitated, then shot too close to the goalkeeper.
Del Piero shot over from a similar chance at the other end as the game settled into a pattern of United attack and Juventus counter-attack. Giggs and Beckham drove United forward and both went close.
Chances came; chances went. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer headed wide from Beckham's free-kick, Cantona hit the bar with a spectacular volley, Keane shot just wide. Old Trafford pulsed with sound as players and supporters alike strained for an equaliser.
It did not come. Indeed, Zidane and Boksic could have doubled the difference. United were at least spared that indignity.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Johnsen, P Neville (McClair, 13); Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs; Cantona; Solskjaer (Cruyff, 80). Substitutes not used: Poborsky, Scholes, Van der Gouw (gk).
Juventus (4-3-1-2): Peruzzi; Torricelli, Ferrara, Montero, Porrini; Di Livio, Deschamps, Jugovic; Zidane; Boksic, Del Piero (Tacchinardi, 80). Substitutes not used: Rampulla (gk), Juliano, Padovano, Lombardo.
Referee: J-M Garcia-Aranda (Spain).
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