Wednesday's 1-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund was unfortunate in that United created the better chances and were only beaten by a deflection.
However, they should have taken those chances, began and ended the game poorly, and were facing a side shorn of four world-class players. The second leg offers redemption but if Dortmund score once, as seems likely, United will have to score three times, which does not. But maybe the date, St George's Day, April 23, will bring a change in fortune.
The other fixture, with the Premier League's mandarins, will be settled by then. United may be talking of going to law if their appeal to the Football Association is unsuccessful but Uefa, European football's ruling body, takes a very sniffy view of such activities and, conceivably, could bar United from Europe if they did.
United feel fixture congestion hinders the European chances of all British teams. Certainly some of their players looked tired on Wednesday, notably David Beckham. He has not played for 18 days and some felt that his mini- break was the reason for his lack of sharpness. Yet his fatigue seemed more mental than physical - he has been in the public eye even if he has not been playing due to a high-profile friendship with one of the Spice Girls.
This season United have played 47 matches and may play 55, a figure which can only be matched (if both FA Cup semi-finals and final go to replays) by Wimbledon and Middlesbrough. To prepare for a busy season, Alex Ferguson bought five players in the summer to enhance the squad but, for one reason or another, he has hardly played Jordi Cruyff, Raimond van der Gouw and Karel Poborsky. Meanwhile, having been injured for the first half of the season, Phil Neville and Andy Cole should be feeling fresh.
There are too many matches in England but the rules should not be changed in mid-season. It is not fair on the other clubs as a game on 26 May 1985 underlined. Coventry, somewhat improbably, then beat Everton, the newly crowned champions, 4-1. It was their third successive win and it relegated Norwich, who had been eight points clear when their season had finished 12 days earlier.
In their defence, United are one of only two teams campaigning for a reduction in the Premiership to 18 clubs, as originally planned. Arsenal are the other - like United, they do not fear relegation and anticipate regular European football. The smaller clubs feel they need the money from more matches and, with so much else ranged against them, who can blame them?
It has not been a good year for fixture planning. Making Easter an international weekend was a gross error by Uefa, arranging England's match in Poland three days after the European Cup final was a mistake by the FA - though after Wednesday they may get away with it.
Whoever qualifies at Old Trafford for the final are likely to end up losers. The probable opponents look invincible. They preceded Wednesday's 2-1 win over Ajax in Amsterdam with a 6-1 disection of Milan away on Sunday. It is a schedule that would have English managers in revolt but, as Terry Venables said as he returned from Dortmund yesterday, when your players are that good the usual rules do not apply.Reuse content