Then they, and millions watching throughout Britain, saw the Liverpool striker score one of the great individual goals. Receiving Paul Ince's considered pass 20 yards inside his own half, he beat Morten Weighorst with his first touch, then glided past half the Celtic team. They did not even lay a tackle on him before he drilled a left-foot shot just inside the far post.
The goal earned Liverpool a draw their poise deserved. Having gone ahead after four minutes through the remarkable Michael Owen, they had toyed with Celtic for an embarrassing half-hour but failed to take advantage.
Celtic, with heart, spirit and no little skill, hauled themselves back into the game in the second half with goals from Jackie McNamara and Simon Donnelly. The trip to Anfield in a fortnight suddenly seemed less daunting; then McManaman strolled by and put their task in perspective.
The goal underlined the gap in quality the first half had revealed. Wim Jansen, the Celtic coach, had extolled the virtues of patience, of not leaving gaps for Liverpool. Yet, with a 48,000-plus crowd making a din Old Trafford can only dream of, Celtic inevitably began torn between cavalry charge and a chess match approach. Having preceded kick-off with a huddle, they followed it with a muddle.
A moving rendition of "You'll never walk alone" from both sets of fans was still echoing when McManaman curled a shot just over. Then Tommy Boyd over-committed himself against Karlheinz Riedle, who slipped a pass to Owen. Played onside by Alan Stubbs, the 17-year-old showed the pace of youth to speed clear and a precocious touch to finish.
Celtic Park was briefly hushed. Then McManaman broke away, sprinted past Stephane Mahe and advanced on Jonathan Gould. The tie seemed over but McManaman hesitated and Mahe scrambled back to cover.
After 22 minutes Celtic at last forced David James to save but Donnelly's shot was weak. Liverpool, so criticised for their slow build-up in midfield last season, were showing Celtic the direct way to goal, with Owen's pace a constant threat.
The Englishmen began the second half as well as the first, Riedle bringing a brilliant point-blank save from a corner. Celtic, however, were looking slicker with Larsson a constant influence. He would have scored after 48 minutes but for a timely block by Ince.
Then Celtic did score, as McNamara played a one-two with Craig Burley on the right and looped a fierce shot over James. Boyd, who will miss the second leg, was booked for bringing down Owen and Ince was cautioned for fouling Burley. Then Donnelly had a purple patch. He struck the bar after 62 minutes and could have won a penalty when Bjorn Tore Kvarme felled him a minute later. He then converted one after James was harshly judged to have fouled Larsson as the Swede went round him from Weighorst's 74th-minute pass.
Then McManaman took over. "It was," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said, "a sensational goal. At that point I was more concerned with losing 3-1. The draw is still disappointing after the start we made. We allowed Celtic to regain the initiative and they put us under all sorts of pressure."
Celtic (4-4-2): Gould; Hannah, Boyd, Stubbs, Mahe; McNamara, Burley, Weighorst, Blinker (O'Donnell, h-t); Donnelly, Larsson. Substitutes not used: McKinlay, Mackay, Thom, Annoni, Gray, Marshall (gk).
Liverpool (5-3-2): James; Jones, Matteo, Wright, Kvarme, Bjornebye; McManaman, Thomas, Ince; Owen, Riedle. Substitutes not used: Murphy, McAteer, Berger, Babb, Kennedy, Carragher, Warner (gk).
Referee: C Graziani (Italy).
Results, page 31
More reports, page 30