IFK Gothenburg. . . . 2
MANCHESTER UNITED last night launched their 18th European campaign with a performance of courage, flair and frailty thoroughly in keeping with the great United sides of the past whom they seek to emulate.
Behind after 26 minutes, they found the character and ability to overwhelm a Gothenburg side who contributed fully to a vibrant display of high-class attacking football.
Ryan Giggs, twice adorning a glittering display, Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe scored the goals that will give them much-needed strength for their second Uefa Champions League tie against Galatasaray in Turkey in two weeks' time.
Yet calamity was closer to hand than the final score suggests. Had Peter Schmeichel not denied the influential Jesper Blomqvist when he broke through on the half-hour the deficit may have been insurmountable.
Instead, United levelled within three minutes and, though their second goal was cancelled out by a fortuitously deflected free-kick, their momentum from then on was unstoppable.
At the core of their performance was Paul Ince, who overcame a knee problem that required an injection on Tuesday and a fitness test yesterday to rule the midfield. Alongside him Nicky Butt, 19 years old and starting a match for the first time, provided ideal support. He did the simple things simply and never shirked a challenge, whether of his bottle, or mettle.
The contrast to the team that surrendered to Leeds on Sunday was stark, not least on the flanks where Kanchelskis was as devastating as Giggs. Last year he talked of leaving Old Trafford, upset at being left out in European competition. This week Ferguson admitted his place as one of the five 'foreigners' was never in doubt.
Though United, who preferred Dennis Irwin, to Brian McClair as the fifth foreign player, fielded Mark Hughes in a lone forward role he never lacked support.
But there were weaknesses, most notably in defence which was, exposed several times by the speed and stealth of the Swedish attacks. Barcelona, with Romario and Gheorghe Hagi, wait in the wings.
However the Swedish defence, including their highly regarded international goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli, fared far worse.
Ravelli had both denied, and nearly gifted United the lead long before Gothenburg scored. In between tipping shots from Kanchelskis, well set up by Butt, and Irwin over the bar he completely missed a Giggs corner and was only saved by Blomqvist's goal-line intervention.
The crossbar came to his aid next as United's aerial power began to tell. Another Giggs corner fell to Ince who, despite being on the ground, volleyed against the woodwork.
But though United seemed on top Gothenburg had earlier shown their threat on the break when Blomqvist cruised past David May only to cross poorly. Given another chance, on 26 minutes, they did not waste it and United suddenly found themselves behind. Finding space on the right Mikael Martinsson bent a marvellous ball behind the defence and, as an exposed Peter Schmeichel hesitated, Stefan Pettersson stole in to score.
Schmeichel then redeemed himself by crucially denying Blomqvist and, on 33 minutes, United equalised. Bruce, who had earlier been the man playing Blomqvist onside, now beat the Swede to the ball and found Hughes on the right. His cross beat Ravelli but Kamark knocked it away only for Giggs, following up, to drive home.
Three minutes after the break United were ahead. Kanchelskis, having tested Ravelli with a low drive that he scrambled away, drove past him through a crowd of players as the resulting corner was only half-cleared.
Now it seemed United would take control but from the next attack Gothenburg won a free-kick, taken by Mikael Nilsson, which was deflected in by Stefan Rehn.
The match had now become an end-to-end cup tie of the sort rarely seen in conventional two-legged European football. The new format may be designed to help the representatives of the wealthier television nations but it appears there may be footballing benefits too.
Giggs and Sharpe put United clear with two goals in six minutes. On 66 minutes Giggs tapped in from a thunderous 30-yard Ince shot that Ravelli did magnificently to parry, then Sharpe touched in Kanchelskis' teasing cross.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Schmeichel; May, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Butt, Ince, Sharpe, Giggs; Hughes.
IFK Gothenburg (5-4-1): Ravelli; Kamark, Johansson, Olsson (Rehn, 44), Bjorklund, Nilsson; Martinsson, Erlingmark, Lindqvist, Blomqvist; Pettersson.
Referee: G Goethals (Belgium).
Hoddle leads Chelsea into Europe, Previews, page 46
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