To put this performance in context, United have never beaten Italian opposition over two legs and even when they have won matches it has never been by more than one goal.
Dwight Yorke got both goals to take his tally since his pounds 12.5m move to Old Trafford last August to 24 and if Andy Cole had matched him then the trip to the San Siro in two weeks would have been a formality. As it is the odds are heavily stacked in favour of Alex Ferguson's team.
The United manager had stressed the need not to concede an away goal and his players managed it, although it was by the skin of their molars in the closing minutes when Internazionale at last began to live up to their reputation. Diego Simeone had a goal disallowed, Peter Schmeichel made two outstanding saves and Henning Berg cleared off the line from Francesco Colonnese in injury time. As Ferguson stressed afterwards, you need luck as well as skill to win the European Cup.
"I would have been happy with 1-0," he said, "so 2-0 is a bonus. It's not over, we will have to face more hurdles but the important thing is I think we'll score over there."
Yorke scored twice, Schmeichel was back to his best but Ferguson had no hesitation in nominating David Beckham as the inspiration of the night. "He was outstanding," the United manager said, describing the midfielder as the best crosser in Europe. "I don't think anyone matched him. He distinguished himself among some terrific players on that pitch."
The passes for both goals emanated from Beckham's boots, but it was also from his right flank that United's best moves flowed. On a night he faced his World Cup nemesis, Simeone, his performance was a revelation.
As the teams came out into the cool, damp Mancunian air, the sense of anticipation was profound. Old Trafford can be a blase place at times but passions burned fiercely last night and expectations were heightened when it was revealed Ronaldo was not in the Inter team.
That left the attention free to focus on the Beckham's meeting with Simeone and he did not disappoint, inflicting damage with his first chance to probe from the right after six minutes.
Yorke headed to Beckham and then advanced to the six-yard box to meet a precise chip from the man vilified last summer as the man who cost England the World Cup.
Surprisingly, Inter had watched Beckham and ignored Yorke and the striker flung himself forward, twisted his frame and headed into the corner.
Simeone retaliated with a 25-yard shot that curled close to Peter Schmeichel's post but the tide was with United and Beckham almost made another goal after 10 minutes. The cross came in from the right, Yorke eluded Fabio Galante but his header was pushed wide.
Andy Cole, who had been quiet in this opening flurry, suddenly burst to life with a fierce volley primed by Ryan Giggs's pass that was stopped short of a spectacular goal by Simeone's body and he was denied only by a sharp save from Gianluca Pagliuca as he slid in after 32 minutes. Again the pass had come from Beckham.
The pace was fierce, the commitment unyielding and in such a hotbed tempers were bound to fray and Keane and Ivan Zamorano were booked. Denis Irwin was cautioned soon afterwards but United got their second goal in injury time of the first half.
Gary Neville played the ball out to Beckham, whose cross to the near post should have been the goalkeeper's. Instead Pagliuca and his defenders dallied and from a three yards Yorke headed in. Just to emphasise how lax Inter had been, Cole was behind the scorer and could have scored himself.
It had been a first half of wild dreams but United should have made it 3-0 immediately after the interval when Giggs headed profligately wide.
The dangers of missed opportunities at this level were underlined immediately and were alleviated only by a fantastic save by Schmeichel. Galante crossed from the left, Zamorano flung himself into the header at the far post only for the goalkeeper to block it with his hand. From point-blank range it was a remarkable stop and when the play halted a long time afterwards Old Trafford rose to applaud the Dane.
Inter were having to push forward and United should have made them pay for their gamble after 55 minutes. Yorke bewitched two defenders on the left of the area and when his cross reached Cole at the far post a tap- in would have sufficed. Somehow he found Aron Winter on the line.
Inter charged forward and would have got a reward but for two further saves from Schmeichel from the Italian substitute Nicola Ventola.
From the second, the ball rebounded to Colonnese who went round the recovering goalkeeper and shot beyond him. A precious away goal seemed a certainty but Berg stretched his leg to clear as the ball reached the line.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnsen (Berg, h-t), Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes (Butt, 69), Giggs; Yorke, Cole. Substitutes not used: Solskjaer, Blomqvist, P Neville, Brown, Van der Gouw (gk).
Internazionale (3-4-2-1): Pagliuca; Galante, Bergomi, Colonnese; Zanetti, Cauet, Simeone, Winter; Djorkaeff, Baggio (Pirlo, 79); Zamorano (Ventola, 68). Substitutes not used: Ze Elias, West, Milanese, Gilberto, Frey (gk).
Referee: H Krug (Ger).
Phil Shaw, Results, page 26
Other reports, page 27