MANCHESTER UNITED'S first priority this season, making it safely into this evening's draw for the Champions' League proper, was accomplished last night when they nullified Lodz in Poland. A wet blanket could not have done a better job of eradicating potential problems.
Ahead 2-0 from the first leg at Old Trafford, they calmly resisted any attempt at a comeback by the Poles. They were professional, accomplished and reduced a potentially difficult second leg of this second round qualifying tie into little more than a textbook exercise in containment.
Not that they will worry. Their sights are set on Monte Carlo this evening when their opponents for the group phase will be discovered. For a club hellbent on repeating their crowning success of 30 years ago, to thrill but go out last night would have been considered a greater crime than boring television viewers in Britain or a paltry crowd in Poland.
The excitement can wait, as United's manager, Alex Ferguson, emphasised. "We are very pleased that we achieved what we wanted to. After the opening minutes when Lodz put us under some pressure, we settled into a game of possession. I was delighted with discipline and patience we showed."
There will be no place for Lodz in the European Super League when it materialises. That was evident as you entered the Poles' stadium, a ramshackle construction that would not be good enough to allow them in the Nationwide Third Division never mind in the stratosphere the elite may or may not aspire to.
Uefa, football's European governing body, had taken a less than benign view of the ground, too, restricting the normal 30,000 capacity to 7,000. So while United could have been entering a hostile cockpit, instead they faced empty stands at either end, with sparsely filled seats on either flank.
It was hard to equate this to the start of a campaign that might end in a blaze of glory next May but, just as the road to Wembley can begin on a UniBond League ground, a European Cup can sprout from an unlikely source. Certainly Alex Ferguson was not taking anything for granted, preaching the need for care and aware the limited Lodz of Old Trafford would be a different animal when seeking to overturn a 2-0 first leg disadvantage. Keep it simple, keep it safe, was the game plan.
Riding the initial Lodz storm was an integral part of that scheme and in that United were word perfect. After 20 seconds Rafal Niznik span round Denis Irwin and shot just wide of Peter Schmeichel's posts but, that apart, the first quarter was an anxiety-free zone for the visitors.
Keeping possession, withdrawing Ryan Giggs to supplement Irwin on the left and the Poles were drawn towards the sharp tackles of Roy Keane and Nicky Butt. Indeed, if Teddy Sheringham, preferred to Andy Cole, had scored after 27 minutes, as he should have done, United would have provided a template for the near-perfect away performance in Europe.
Giggs took a corner from the right that found Sheringham's run from deep. The striker had time and pace but his header was poorly directed and much of the impetus was lost as it thumped into the ground and trickled past the post.
United had an equally good chance just before half-time when Giggs broke down the right and then passed to David Beckham, who attempted to chip Boguslaw Wyparlo. The goalkeeper managed to divert the attempt over the bar, however.
A more serious lapse from the England midfielder had happened after half an hour when he scythed down Tomasz Kos. A yellow card was a deserving punishment and one that a man supposedly on his best behaviour after his World Cup calamity could have done without.
United had a scare themselves, although it was Schmeichel who instigated it with a sloppy pass that found Zbigniew Wyciszkiewicz. A free-kick was conceded and, consequently, nearly a goal when Ronny Johnsen's leg diverted Kos's free-kick perilously close to the goal.
That was a rare alarm and it was indicative of United's control that Ferguson felt assured enough to withdraw Giggs after 63 minutes. His replacement was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who appeared to be heading to Tottenham in a pounds 5.5m transfer at the weekend but now seems to have resurrected his career at Old Trafford. His arrival coincided with United taking control and Roy Keane and Nicky Butt were both close on 68 minutes. It did not matter. Stiffer tests await United, and after this evening we will have a better idea of where they lie.
LKS Lodz: (3-5-2): Wyparlo; Pawlak, Bendkowski, Krysiak; Jakubowski (Bugaj, 85), Kos, Wyciszkiewicz, Niznik, Lenart (Pluciennik, 81); Wieszczycki, Zuberek (Matys, 51). Substitutes not used: Paszulewicz, Slawutta (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; P Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs (Solskjaer, 63); Scholes; Sheringham. Substitutes not used: May, Cruyff, Berg, Cole, W Brown, Van der Gouw (gk).
Referee: C Graziano (Italy).
Celtic calamity, page 23,
Ken Jones, page 22