United were exhilarating and bewitching, pleasing fantasists and purists alike. With their best European Champions' Cup performance since the team of Best, Law and Charlton won the trophy in 1968, they took a gigantic step towards the semi-finals of this year's competition. Borussia Dortmund or Auxerre await.
United left Porto, proud champions of Portugal, former European champions themselves, an ill-disciplined and well beaten rabble. They had not been defeated away from home in any competition for nearly 12 months but, by the end last night, United's fans were jeering: "Are you City in disguise?"
The goals came from David May, Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole, but all 11 players were superb. If one was outstanding, though, it was Giggs. Playing in a more central role, he ran at Porto at pace, sliding passes through their defenders, and working like a navvy.
"In a lot of ways, playing infield suits him," his manager, Alex Ferguson, said. "In two years' time he will be a truly wonderful player. He has got that electricity and balance. Porto could not handle that.
"I cannot praise any of them enough," Ferguson added. "The result was beyond my dreams. We showed a really positive attitude and produced a really aggressive attacking performance."
As important as the goals United scored was the one they did not concede. "I'd have been happy with 1-0," Ferguson said. "As long as you do not lose that goal."
All this was achieved without Roy Keane, who failed to pass a late test on his injured ankle. He should be back for the trip to Oporto in a fortnight. Porto, however, will be missing Artur, Rui Barros and Sergio Conceicao. All three were booked last night for the second time in the competition and will be suspended. United had Denis Irwin cautioned but he will still be available.
The match was an open one from the first minute when Edmilson and Artur found their way through the United defence and were only halted by a timely tackle from Ronny Johnsen. The Norwegian had taken Keane's anchor role in midfield; alongside him were Giggs and David Beckham. With Cantona tucked in behind Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Cole in attack, United had an adventurous look.
United's early dominance was aerial. A cross from Cantona caused problems, then Henrique Hilario was forced to save headers from May, Cole and Pallister. Some sides would have been seduced into humping high balls forward but United resisted temptation. Instead Irwin fed Giggs, who played a slide- rule reverse ball to Johnsen in the inside-left channel. He went to the byline and, although Cole was unable to manage a clean shot from the cut back, won a corner.
Badly taken by Beckham, it came back to him and he crossed again, on the volley. Pallister rose, Hilario blocked the header but failed to hold it and May, though on his back, reacted with a striker's instinct to stab the ball in. There were 22 minutes gone and United had the early goal they craved.
Porto immediately changed tack by bringing on Jardel. But, though the forwards pressed, they were undone, after 38 minutes, by their defenders. Peter Schmeichel's clearance was headed on to Solskjaer, who tried to find Cantona. Aloisio intercepted but stumbled on the ball. It rolled to Cantona who turned and drove past Hilario.
With Old Trafford exultant, "Are you watching, Newcastle?" rang out. Amid the hard-core denizens of the Warwick Road end a red flare appeared. So common on the Continent, so rare in England, it appeared to typify United's long-awaited ascent to the higher plane of the European game.
Still the players could not relax: the dread prospect of conceding an away goal remained. United were equal to the challenge, their attitude underlined in the next Porto attack. As Artur shaped to shoot a red shirt barred his path: Solskjaer, the striker, working back in his own six-yard box.
After the interval Porto had the bulk of possession but they still failed to trouble Schmeichel. At the other end Hilario was having anything but a night to laugh about. The more Porto pressed the more he was exposed, and United are one of the finest counter-attacking teams around.
They proved it twice, after 60 and 80 minutes. First, Cantona found Cole down the line. He ran at the defence, waited, then slipped the ball to Giggs, arriving on the blindside at speed and unmarked. Another ball passed under Hilario's body.
Then Johnsen found Cantona, who picked out Cole's run. As Hilario rushed him, the striker demonstrated his rediscovered confidence by chipping gently over the goalkeeper.
When United last went to Oporto, in the Cup-Winners' Cup 20 years ago, they lost 4-0. Even one of Sir Matt Busby's sides lost 5-1 in Portugal, to Sporting Lisbon. Yet it is hard to imagine a repeat. Springtime in Chablis country, or, more likely, on the Ruhr, beckons.
Manchester United (4-3-1-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Johnsen, Giggs; Cantona; Cole, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: McClair, Cruyff, Poborsky, P Neville, Van der Gouw (gk).
Porto (4-5-1): Hilario; Sergio Conceicao, Jorge Costa, Aloisio, Paulinho Santos; Edmilson, Barroso, Zahovic, Costa (Jardel, 24), Drulovic; Artur (Rui Barros, h/t). Substitutes not used: Fernando Mendes, Joao Pinto, Wozniak (gk).
Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).Reuse content