THERE will be no 30th anniversary date with European glory this year at Old Trafford, just a lingering sense of what might have been. The English champions last night were unable to overcome either their own crippling injury list or their impressive French counterparts, Monaco.
Behind to a David Trezeguet goal after just five minutes of this European Champions' Cup quarter-final second leg, United showed all their customary courage to draw level through Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after 53 minutes. They were not, however, able to display the usual panache and penetration and succumbed to Trezeguet's away goal.
The result vindicated George Best's deflating but realistic pre-match prognosis. The star of the 1968 winners said of the current vintage: "I don't think this is going to be their year. They are a couple of players short."
A look at the teamsheet reveals the situation was far worse than that. United began four players short; Roy Keane, Gary Pallister, Peter Schmeichel and Ryan Giggs, who had broken down in training on the morning of the match. They then lost Gary Neville and Paul Scholes.
Tigers may be more dangerous when wounded but not football teams. United were a pale shadow of the side that romped through domestic and European fields in the autumn and Alex Ferguson may rue his failure, alone among the quarter-finalists, to strengthen his squad in the winter transfer window. "We do need a stronger squad," he admitted. "We are patching the team up and our balance is not right. We would have won this game with our best side but you have to accept injuries in management."
Jean Tigana, the Monaco coach, said: "We were fortunate United had players out but that does not diminish the achievement."
Monaco, with Trezeguet back, looked stronger than in the goalless first leg. That impression gained credence within five minutes. Ronny Johnsen's clearance was headed back towards Trezeguet by Djibril Diawara, Denis Irwin and Johnsen both missed tackles and the ball came to Trezeguet. Emmanuel Petit, Arsenal's former Monaco player, said this week that Trezeguet needed few "occasions" to score. So it proved as, from 20 yards, he hit a 96mph drive into the roof of the net that even Schmeichel would have struggled to stop.
Old Trafford fell into a mood of sullen anticlimax and it took 17 minutes for them to create a chance, a David Beckham cross that Solskjaer almost reached. Monaco still looked more polished and penetrative and should have gone two up when Victor Ikpeba put a free header straight at Raimond van der Gouw.
Nicky Butt was booked as United struggled to gain possession but eventually they did with he and Beckham to the fore. Beckham whistled a shot over, put a free-kick just wide and won a corner with a neat one-two with Butt. In the midst of this Collins was booked for cutting him down from behind - so the Scot will be ruled out of the semi-final first leg.
United ended the half the stronger with Muhamed Konjic clearing one cross from Teddy Sheringham from almost under his own bar and Martin Djetou lucky to escape a penalty for handball - "it looked a clear handball to me," said Ferguson - for blocking another. Despite the loss of Scholes they continued to press after the break and, eight minutes into the half, Butt burst into the box and was brought down by Franck Dumas. As 50,000 voices screamed "penalty" Helmut Krug kept his whistle still as Beckham crossed low for Solskjaer to score.
Game on - with Monaco, to their credit, still refusing to sit on their away goal. In a frantic five minutes Solskjaer was booked, Michael Clegg fizzed a shot over and Collins twice tested Van der Gouw - the first, a chip, bringing a save worthy of the great Dane he replaced.
The climax was just as hectic with Van der Gouw making a brave and agile save from Thierry Henry at one end and Sheringham and Beckham, twice, going close at the other. United never had enough, however. "To win this competition you need luck with injuries," Tigana said. There was no dissent from United.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van Der Gouw; P Neville, G Neville (Berg, 31), Johnsen, Irwin; Scholes (Clegg, 31), Beckham, Butt, Solskjaer; Sheringham, Cole. Substitutes not used: May, McClair, Thornley, Curtis, Pilkington (gk).
Monaco (3-5-2): Barthez; Konjic (Da Costa, 74), Dumas, Djetou; Sagnol, Benarbia (Carnot, 66), Diawara, Collins, Leonard; Trezeguet, Ikpeba (Henry, 60). Substitutes not used: Pignol, Spehar, Christanval, Porato (gk).
Referee: H Krug (Ger).