Even Alex Ferguson, perhaps finding that maths can be a sexy subject after all, when he calculated that - barring Juventus failing to defeat Galatasaray in the delayed Champions' League Group B game on Wednesday - Manchester United only require a draw against Bayern Munich in 10 days' time, was in a mood to join in the appreciation, agreeing generously that the Brazilian Rivaldo had been "the star player". Then a Spanish journalist, admittedly being somewhat precipitate, asked the visiting manager which team he'd like to face in the final. "Oh," Ferguson hesitated and blushed before replying, "the local blind school in Switzerland." Yes, well. A former shipyard worker he may be, but Billy Connolly he isn't, and the media reaction wasn't much more riotous once it had been translated into Spanish by a bemused interpreter. It will no doubt go down on his list of "things I wish I'd never said".
But if it had one effect, Ferguson's quip at least concentrated the mind on the fact that, despite being unbeaten and having scored 19 goals in their group phase matches, his squad have an onerous passage to negotiate before returning to the Nou Camp for that final on 26 May. Before their most myopic advocates become too sanguine, it is wise to ponder the fact that Ferguson's team have also conceded 10 goals. Of the 24 teams participating, only the wooden-spooners of their respective leagues, Brondby and Sturm Graz, have worse records. As Barcelona's Patrick Kluivert - courted by United in the summer before deciding his future lay with those assorted gypsy kings of Dutchmen, Brazilian, Portuguese, and the odd Spaniard, of Catalonia, but ineligible for the Champions' League - put it: "Jaap Stam and Gary Neville were very strong, but whether Manchester United's defence is good enough depends on what strikers they're playing against. Just one error can be enough to eliminate them."
At least United have relief in the knowledge that they won't have to meet Barcelona again. Even shorn of the suspended Philipp Cocu and injured Abelardo, Winston Bogarde and, most significantly, Luis Henrique who wreaked so much damage at Old Trafford in September when the score was identical, their beguiling deftness of touch and accuracy of passing and their audacious trickery demanded that United be at their most resolute. True, Peter Schmeichel, who has conceded himself that he lacked concentration, contributed to the opposition tally when Rivaldo's free-kick left him embarrassed and Ferguson may be forced to replace the Dane before the end of the season when he is due to depart Old Trafford. It will take, though, the hardest of hearts for the Scot to deny the goalkeeper what could turn out to be his valedictory performance in the final.
But that should not detract from the home side's mighty contribution. As their coach Louis Van Gaal insisted begrudgingly, although it must be said not erroneously, after the 3-3 draw put a quarter final-place beyond his club: "The distance between Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United is a small one." If this is the kind of team produced by a coach suffering from what his critics regard as a large dose of Dutchman at the Helm Disease then a host of his British counterparts would happily suggest an exchange scheme. Twelve shots on target, and as many again adrift of Schmeichel's goal. Only five fouls committed, which suggests that football which is not frenetic and over-physical isn't necessarily sterile and negative.
For once the statistics tell no lies of the breathtaking bravado of Barcelona's play, based on a refusal to sacrifice the ball without good cause. Maybe there was no Romario to inflict humiliation this time, but in the visionary, perpetually lurking menace of the almost consummate performer Rivaldo, who rendered even the likes of Roy Keane average at times, there was another tormentor, who linked almost intuitively with his compatriot Sonny Anderson to offer little respite to those in opposition. In the first half, you feared for the confidence of the young right-sided defender Wes Brown, who quickly established that the wicked wiles of wingers Luis Figo and Zenden are a class above what he would normally be confronted with in the Premiership, let alone in reserve fixtures. They possess acceleration, and not of the head down variety, still too prevalent in England. But the England Under-21 international grew in stature as the game progressed, and even found the sense of adventure to commit himself forward in support of David Beckham after the interval.
If a draw is all that Manchester require against Bayern, who also only need a point to win the league, more than the odd cynic will suggest that the two teams might come to a quiet gentleman's agreement. Even if it was not, anyway, in Ferguson's moral nature it is certainly not part of his football psyche. If United fail to prevail in the competition that has so frustrated him, their ambitions will founder on the manager's own desire to take the offensive at all opportunity.
Many are those who have perished adopting a strategy that pays too little heed to defence. Ferguson is not one of them but, in any case, the faith he places in Dwight Yorke, joint leading scorer with five goals in the competition, and his confederate, Andy Cole, could see them through the perils ahead. Or to put it another way, Yorke's lift can spare them a Rorke's drift. Kluivert, whose spurning of United resulted in the pursuit of the Barbadian - although, intriguingly, the lethal Dutchman is now suggesting that a move to Old Trafford wouldn't be absolutely out of the question in years to come - was effusive in his appreciation of the partnership that has become so productive.
For Yorke's second in which they combined as though they'd been playing together for a decade, not three months, they displayed a rare affinity. "Marvellous," enthused Kluivert. "Nobody could fail to be impressed by that goal." Not even the demanding Barca fans, who at the final whistle voiced their approval at a real paella of a feast set before them.
Yet Bayern, as the Dutch international and Barcelona defender Michael Reiziger suggested, will be a different proposition entirely. "Manchester United like attacking play; Bayern play more at the back and look for the counter attack, so it's going to be a different game from tonight," he said. "I like Manchester United's attack, but they must not underestimate the Germans."
Somehow you imagine that Ferguson has come too far, too often, to do that.Reuse content