"Glory, glory Man Utd" echoed around the Westfalenstadion last night but it was a chant of defiance, not celebration. A deflected goal 14 minutes from time has left the Premiership leaders requiring one of their finest performances in their illustrious history if they are to make an emotional return to Munich for the European Cup final next month.
They played well last night, but not well enough to defeat an under-strength but still impressive Borussia Dortmund side. Twice United could have led: Nicky Butt hit a post, David Beckham had a shot cleared off the line. Then Rene Tretschok, a journeyman forward called up because of Dortmund's injury crisis, fired a speculative shot from 20 yards. It took a cruel deflection off Gary Pallister and looped into the top corner.
The goal made Tretschok a hero but it shattered the chance of glory for another man from football's twilight zone. An hour before kick-off Raimond van der Gouw was preparing to take up his customary position on the substitutes' bench. Then Peter Schmeichel failed a late, late fitness test and the Dutch goalkeeper was pitched into the biggest game of his life.
After a shaky start in which he took a heavy knock, Van der Gouw played well and could not be faulted for the goal. United still hope Schmeichel will be back for the second leg though Roy Keane, their midfield Goliath, will be absent. He received his second yellow card of the competition and is suspended.
"He never touched the boy," Alex Ferguson, United's manager, insisted. "It's incredible, it was his only tackle in the game. Roy Keane never seemed to be getting about players the way he can, maybe the role Sousa had and where Moller played it made it difficult for him."
Keane will be missed - especially as Dortmund are bound to be stronger. The Germans were missing six internationals last night, including world- class players in Matthias Sammer, Jurgen Kohler, Stephane Chapuisat and Karlheinz Riedle, but they still moved with purpose and quality. In a pulsating game, Paulo Sousa was the most creative player, Heiko Herrlich the most dangerous.
Dortmund, once beaten 6-1 at Old Trafford, will not fear their impending visit. They are unbeaten in four away Champions' League games this season and have won at Atletico Madrid, Steaua Bucharest and Auxerre.
Not that they are invincible. After a worrying start which included a collision between Pallister and Van der Gouw which left both limping (a big worry with no goalkeeper on the bench) United matched their hosts in most areas. Indeed, they created fewer, but better chances.
After 28 minutes David Beckham, who was otherwise disappointing, and the excellent Nicky Butt set up Cantona on the edge of the box. The Frenchman lifted the ball well over the bar.
Three minutes into the second period United went closer, much closer. Cantona, now beginning to exert an influence, picked out Butt's run with a magnificent ball. He drew Stefan Klos and drilled the ball past him only to see it come thudding back off the post.
As Dortmund pressed United broke again, 20 minutes into the second half. Cantona was again the provider, this time it was Beckham who beat Klos, but there was Martin Kree, another of Dortmund's stand-ins, to clear as the ball rolled towards goal.
It was United's last chance. Ten minutes later Paulo Sousa brushed Cantona aside as they tussled for a loose ball, passed to Tretschok who, as Pallister came in, shot. The subsequent goal was almost inevitable as United had spent much of the game blocking German shots. That Pallister was the victim was harsh, though booked he was a lion in a defence which had been robbed of David May as well as Schmeichel.
The Dane's fitness test had been almost as painful to watch as to endure. With less than 40 minutes to go he was still stretching his back muscle. Then he winced, walked over to Van der Gouw, clasped his hand, hugged him and wished the Dutchman luck.
Signed for pounds 200,000 from Vitesse Arnhem during the summer, he had played three times this season, most recently in the Coca-Cola Cup defeat at Leicester in November.
He was plunged into an atmosphere he could never have experienced before. Drums pounded in the home end, United supporters bellowed their resistance at the other. The sound rolled around the stadium, trapped by the swooping roofs of two vast cantilever stands running along the sidelines. The fans were in full voice, their throats lubricated and voices warmed up by an afternoon of singing and drinking at a "fans' gathering". The event appeared to have passed off largely peacefully.
Van der Gouw was grateful for an early touch when Tretschok fired in a volley which came to him at a comfortable height, but then clattered into Pallister as they closed down Herrlich. Any worries about his composure were soon dispelled as he twice denied Herrlich.
He was beaten once before the goal, by Butt who inadvertently flicked a corner over him. Fortunately Cantona was there to head it on to the bar and away to safety. United were not so lucky the next time.
Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Klos; Reuter, Kree, Feiersinger, Heinrich; Lambert, Paulo Sousa; Ricken (Freund, 89), Moller, Tretschok (Reinhardt, 86); Herrlich (Zorc, 90). Substitutes not used: De Beer (gk), Kirovski.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Gouw; G Neville, Johnsen, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs (Scholes, 83); Cantona; Solskjaer (Cole, 75). Substitutes not used: Casper, Poborsky, P Neville.
Referee: N Levnikov (Russia).