Football: Epic lacking only a happy ending

European verdicts: Qualification in doubt after Premiership pair fail to win despite good displays
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"WHAT A game!" That was yesterday's comment in factories and offices, Job Centres and boardrooms, as Wednesday's coruscating struggle between Manchester United and Barcelona was dissected. Their 3-3 draw was, indeed, some game, but it is too early to assess where it will be placed in the straining archive of great Old Trafford nights.

That will come in December, when the league programme is complete. Then the match will either be tagged as one to remember with sadness, as the night another European quest hit the skids, or forgotten in commemoration of the epic victory in Munich, Barcelona or Copenhagen which enabled United to progress.

For that is the probable measure of United's task. Even if they defeat Bayern and Brondby in Manchester, and take a point from three away fixtures, they will only have 10 points. Last season that would not have earned qualification in any of the six groups and it is unlikely to do so this time.

United had banked on taking six points from Brondby, but that is by no means certain given their defeat of Bayern. Neither can victory at Nou Camp be considered likely given Barcelona's revival on Wednesday, despite being forced to field a weakened side.

Thus the match in Munich in 12 days takes on an even greater importance. It is already imbued with significance. It is the first time, after 40 years and 118 European games, that United have played a tie in Munich since the fateful February afternoon when the jet carrying the Busby Babes crashed at Munich airport en route from a European Cup quarter-final in Belgrade.

While Alex Ferguson will do his best to shield the team from the emotion of the occasion, it will be there, for Sir Bobby Charlton, then a survivor, now a director, more than anyone. How will United react to this chilling reminder of mortality and perspective? Will they find it impossible to concentrate? Or will they be inspired?

For the would-be super leaguers, of course, such an occasion, with its overtones of human tragedy, makes the product even more attractive. Thus it was hard to resist a sense of schadenfreude when the results came in on Wednesday night. Not only did Bayern lose to an "outsider", other members of the elite also struggled to assert their assumed authority. The most notable were Juventus, held at home by Galatasaray, but Rosenberg's draw in Bilbao, Olympiakos's point in Porto and PSV's struggle to overcome HJK Helsinki were all a surprise.

However, such upstart behaviour may only hasten a super league. At present Brondby, Spartak Moscow and Panathinaikos have all earned pounds 220,000 more from the competition than United, Barcelona or Juventus and pounds 440,000 more than Internazionale and Bayern. Much more of this and the big clubs will be rushing back into the arms of Media Partners.

The natural order is likely to be restored by the time the quarter-finalists are known but there are clearly no certainties in United's group. For 30 minutes on Wednesday they played a brand of slick, high-tempo attacking football which very few teams would have coped with. It was probably as good as they have played in this decade's assault on Europe. Then they faded, their fire perhaps dimmed by complacency or tiredness, or maybe snuffed out by Barcelona's tactical adaptation and spirited regeneration. By the end they were hanging on, their shape as flimsy as a carrier bag in the wind.

The second-half United will be lucky to take a further point in the group, the other would walk it. Ferguson must now ensure the latter United both take, and leave, the field in Munich. To that end Nicky Butt's suspension is unfortunate though the form of both David Beckham and, initially, Ryan Giggs must be encouraging. Dwight Yorke, like Eric Cantona, looks as if he has found his metier at Old Trafford though he is yet to answer the doubts about his away form, which was never wholly convincing at Aston Villa. Munich would be a good place to start.

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