Barcelona, historically poor performers in Britain and struggling for form in Spain, last night showed the quality of the opposition that stands in their way. Behind to a Mark Hughes goal after 19 minutes, they went to the brink of becoming the first team to defeat United in 53 European matches at their Old Trafford citadel.
A thrilling encounter demonstrated the best of both sides. United began full of vigour and imagination, and threatened to overrun their visitors down the flanks. Once they had the lead, however, the Spanish champions displayed their ability to take control of a game, and United needed all the British virtues of resilience and tenacity to gain a precious point.
It was secured by a late Lee Sharpe equaliser that cancelled out goals from Romario and Bakero either side of half-time and kept United's Champions' League hopes alive.
However this result, and Gothenberg's victory over Galatasaray, means United must now takes points from their ties in Spain and Sweden if they are to progress.
Alex Ferguson, the United manager, had appealed for the crowd to match the support given Aston Villa when they defeated Internazionale last month and Old Trafford responded with a wall of noise. The early battles had been fought in a quieter arena, however, the minds of the two managers both of whom sprung surprises when they unveiled their line-ups.
United's Alex Ferguson dropped his inspirational captain Steve Bruce, bringing Paul Parker into his central defence. With Ryan Giggs injured ,Nicky Butt and Denis Irwin were also included.
For Barcelona Johan Cruyff left out the experienced pair Amor and Eusebio, bringing Beguiristain to make a three- man forward line, and Luis at right-back. Alongside him, in a three-man defence, Ronald Koeman shadowed United's lone forward, Mark Hughes.
United's attacks were channelled, however, down the wings. On the right Andrei Kanchelskis was quick and direct, on the left Sharpe gave Luis such a fearful chasing he was withdrawn at half-time.
But though he revelled in the unaccustomed chance to assume Ryan Giggs' left-flank mantle Sharpe's early crossing was abysmal. Until the 19th minute.
Then, released by Ince, he went past an ineffectual challenge and crossed to the far post where Hughes rose to head powerfully past Carlos Busquets. Soon after the pair combined again but this time Hughes was unable to manage a clean strike.
It proved an expensive error when, on 33 minutes, Barcelona equalised.
Koeman found Bakero in midfield and, as United stood off the Spanish international, he slid a through pass to Romario. The Brazilian shot between Schmeichel's legs.
The goal unnerved United and settled Barcelona who went on to dominate the rest of the half. Half-time failed to disrupt the pattern and, three minutes into the second period, Barcelona struck again.
It was a well-taken but poorly defended goal. Koeman, deep on the right, bent in a cross, Bakero dropped off Parker, controlled the ball and volleyed it past Schmeichel. The decision to omit Bruce began to look a questionable one, especially as Parker - playing his first full game of the season - had not been used as a specialist marker The crowd, at this stage as muted as their heroes, urged United back into a game that was slowly slipping away from them. For a while United failed to react, Barcelona at one time playing keep-ball for several minutes, but then Ince and Roy Keane began snapping at their heels and the game changed again.
As United's momentum grew Sharpe volleyed over and Kanchelskis had a shot deflected wide. Then, with 11 minutes left, Ince found Keane on the right, he crossed low and Sharpe tucked it past Busquets like Denis Law in his pomp.
As an excellently-refereed and sportingly contested game raced to its finish both sides had chances to win. But none were taken and both they, and an enthralled television audience, now eagerly await the return in the Nou Camp in a fortnight's time.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Schmeichel; May (Bruce, 70), Parker, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Butt (Scholes, 67), Keane, Ince, Sharpe; Hughes.
Barcelona (3-4-3): Busquets; Luis (Eusebio, h/t), Koeman, Abelardo; Guardiola, Nadal, Bakero, Sergi; Stoichkov, Romario, Beguiristain (Jordi, 67).
Referee: I Craciunescu (Romania).
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