It earned the Old Trafford club a draw on the night and a victory on aggregate that looks a lot more comfortable in print that it did in the flesh. Having seen off an unfit Ronaldo, United had gone behind to a 63rd minute goal from his replacement, Nicola Ventola. Had Internazionale then taken one of the many chances their intense pressure forced, or been granted one of the three penalties they claimed, it could have been a different story.
Instead United survived and flourished and will now await tomorrow's draw, in Switzerland, to discover the identity of their next opponents; Bayern Munich, Juventus and Dynamo Kiev are the other qualifiers for next month's semi-finals. The unique treble remains in sight.
For Inter, twice winners of this competition, defeat ended their last chance to salvage a traumatic season, one that began to go wrong when Ronaldo broke down in Paris last July.
His appearances have been sporadic and fitful ever since and last night, as in the World Cup final, he was present in body but not spirit. Instead of having the expectations of a nation on his shoulders he merely had half a city resting on his every move, but that was still too much.
There was no lack of service. While United were first to attack, Roy Keane shooting wide after 25 seconds, the match quickly developed into a pattern of Inter pressure, United defence. With Ronaldo reduced to a series of brilliant cameos, notably a bit of trickery which duped Gary Neville, it was Ivan Zamorano's movement which caused the greater problems.
Jaap Stam had already been stretched by him, the Dutchman recovering well to block, before he forced an error from Henning Berg after 16 minutes. The Chilean advanced on Peter Schmeichel and appeared to have beaten him when the big Dane dived across the striker's path. He went down, the tifosi bayed for a penalty, Gilles Veissiere waved play on. Alex Ferguson clearly had the strong referee he wanted though Zamorano had, perhaps, fallen too enthusiastically.
Within a minute Schmeichel had again defied Zamorano, this time diving to parry his close-range shot. Then Javier Zanetti slipped inside Giggs on the right and floated a cross over Schmeichel. It was almost on Ronaldo's brow when the boot of Berg intervened to deflect it wide.
Still the Nerazzurri came forward and, from a corner, Zanetti arrowed a shot towards the far post with the outside of his right boot. It was eerily reminiscent of his goal against England in St- Etienne but this time it struck the woodwork and bounced away.
As the half wore on United came back into the game and Ronny Johnsen, breaking down the left, sent in a cross which Andy Cole ought to have converted. Instead his shot flew over the bar.
Inter resumed the assault after the break and Ronaldo brought a stunning save from Schmeichel. A minute later he again cut into the box but this time, running alongside Gary Neville, he suddenly tumbled to the floor. The referee waved away the penalty appeals.
The diving was becoming a habit, an indication of Inter's desperation. Next to go down was Ze Elias, leaping over Keane's tackle on the edge of the box. Veissiere had had enough, out came a yellow card.
His compatriot, Ronaldo, was even more miserable as, on the hour, Inter accepted reality and withdrew their talisman. It seemed a significant twist in United's favour but three minutes later Ventola scored. Benoit Cauet chipped the ball forward, it took a bad bounce, looped over Keane and fell to the youngster. Maybe United had subconsciously relaxed.
From the tribunes came the sound of drums and the glow of flares. From the bench came another forward. Schmeichel made a string of saves but, with eight minutes left, Inter ought to have levelled as Ze Elias broke through unchallenged. He dragged his shot wide. Six minutes later Yorke made space and drew defenders on the right, Gary Neville hoisted a cross over, Cole nodded it down and Scholes rolled his first goal in three months past Gianluca Pagliuca.
It was all over bar the cheering which came from the 5,000 United fans on the Curva Sud. It was a gritty performance, but Ferguson knew where the credit lay. At the final whistle he strode onto the pitch, past his players, to the referee. The night may have been cold but the handshake could not have been warmer.
"The team do that to me, I think they torture me. We rode our luck at times but in general play we were excellent - our composure, possession on the ball. I'm very, very proud of them," Ferguson said.
"They were all outstanding. They've deserved the result. There have been times in the past when we haven't got the luck.. The referee was magnificent. That's one of the best you'll ever get," he added.
Ronaldo was gracious in defeat. "We showed big hearts and we also created some scoring chances, we just weren't able to put them in," he said. "United deserved it more than we did."
Internazionale (3-4-1-2): Pagliuca; Bergomi (Moriero, 69), Colonnese, West; Zanetti, Silvestre, Simeone (Ze Elias, 32), Cauet; Baggio; Zamorano, Ronaldo (Ventola, 59). Substitutes not used: Frey (gk), Galante, Djorkaeff, Winter.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Johnsen (Scholes, 76), Giggs (P Neville, 81); Yorke, Cole. Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Sheringham, Blomqvist, Brown, Solskjaer.
Referee: G Veissiere (France).
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