Football: Patient progress pleases the eye

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ALTHOUGH THEY achieved their objective last night, Manchester United's inability to mould their fate with their own hands hardly bodes well for their chances of taking their latest European Cup campaign all the way. They must now hope that fate gives them one of the potentially less formidable opponents among the last eight when the draw for the quarter- finals is made on 16 December.

Kaiserslautern would probably do, or Olympiakos, each of whom qualified from the weakest groups after a night of hectic activity across the continent. In particular, Alex Ferguson will be praying that his team avoid Dynamo Kiev - who with Real Madrid - who look the pick of the bunch. The gifts of Shevchenko and Rebrov would present an unwelcome test. Juventus and Internazionale, while formidable, could be confronted with relative optimism.

For an hour last night, while Dwight Yorke was available to add point to the careful approach work of Andy Cole, United played the sort of progressive football that represents a clear profit from the painful lessons of recent seasons in this competition. But Bayern Munich's ability to turn up the pressure when it counted was evident in the coruscating 15 minutes with which they opened the second half, and during which Hasan Salihamidzic's strike equalised the goal with which Roy Keane had given United the lead just before the break. And once Yorke had gone, the home side were no longer able to turn possession and pressure into sustained threat, leaving their supporters with a distinct sense of anticlimax.

There is, in any case, a strange and slightly unsettling quality nowadays to European nights at Old Trafford. A crowd that once assembled hours before the kick-off to take an active part in the preliminaries is now to be found wandering around the stadium's concourse, contemplating the purchase of merchandise. With a quarter of an hour to go, the only real noise in the stadium had been created by the phalanx of German supporters crammed into the south-east curve. The overamplified Ruritanian fanfares selected by Uefa to accompany the entry of the players easily drowned the crowd's songs and chants, contributing to the disappointingly muted atmosphere.

But, unsurprisingly, there was nothing muted about the football. Even those sceptical of the progress towards a full-blown European Super League would surely applaud the success of the present system, which has put an end, in the early stages of the competition, to those dreadful displays of away-leg negativity. These are proper football matches, played and decided over 90 minutes, and last night's game, although inevitably lacking the careless rapture of those recent epics against Barcelona, offered a fine example of the improvement in the experience for the players and in the spectacle for the audience.

United, as is their current mood, poured forward from the outset, but did so with a maturity that should serve them well in seasons to come. The blossoming of Cole since Eric Cantona's departure has given Ferguson, possibly to the manager's surprise, a creative footballer whose appreciation of changing angles is matched by the speed of movement that marked his work as an out-and-out striker at St James' Park. His collaboration with the patient Paul Scholes is the key to United's best work in attack, and now, in Yorke, he has a front-running partner whose instincts and movement are perfectly complementary.

All this, along with Ryan Giggs's speed, David Beckham's menacing crosses and Roy Keane's gradually returning power, was visible in the early exchanges, but Bayern's threat was no harder to discern. With three men strung across the front, they posed an interesting tactical problem for the home defenders, amplified by the early incursions of Lothar Matthaus and Markus Babbel.

Nevertheless, the goal with which United took the lead was well deserved for the diligence with which Giggs chased and retrieved an apparently lost cause before turning Thomas Strunz inside and out and then coolly measuring his cut-back on to Keane's right boot five yards outside the area.

Bayern came out for the second half clearly under instruction from Ottmar Hitzfeld to raise the tempo, and within 10 minutes Samuel Kuffour's driving run and powerful shot, reminiscent of Marcel Desailly in his prime, brought from Peter Schmeichel what may well remain the big Dane's greatest save of his final season, a leap and a fingertip to divert the ball over the bar.

Two minutes later the equaliser arrived, and it was no surprise that Stefan Effenberg's left foot had something to do with it, swinging the ball in from the right-hand corner flag to give the willing Salimhamidzic the chance to force it home.