IT BEGAN with a ripple and grew rapidly to a crescendo. It was the rare sound, in the partisan world of top-level football, of a standing ovation from both sets of supporters to both sets of players. From the suited and booted to the beer-stained football-shirted, from the great swathe of Barcelona fans to the thin wedge of United supporters, they rose to their feet to applaud.
The 23 players involved deserved every clap. In one of the world's great stadiums two teams brimming with quality and committed to attack had combined to produce a spellbinding match. Football does not get any better than this and it was a privilege to witness. It would have made a wonderful European Cup final.
That might yet happen, but it will not be this season. The final may be in Barcelona but Barcelona will not be in the final. With just five points from five Champions' League Group D matches they are already out. Manchester United are still in contention for a place in the last eight but Bayern Munich, who beat Brondby in Germany last night, now top the group and United must beat them to be sure of qualifying.
If they play as they did last night they will surely do so. Behind after just 49 seconds, United briefly looked set for a reprise of their crushing 1994 defeat in the Nou Camp but they showed their talent and resilience to match a depleted but thrilling Barcelona side goal for goal. The combination of Dwight Yorke, with two goals, and Andy Cole, with one, again provided United's attacking edge but even they were outshone by Rivaldo, who produced a virtuoso display. The gifted left-footer scored two stunning goals and only the crossbar, and Peter Schmeichel's brilliance, denied him a third.
His compatriot, Sonny Anderson, had opened the scoring as United took time to settle. Jaap Stam had already missed an opportunity to clear before Giovanni crossed from the left, Denis Irwin misjudged his header and the ball fell to Anderson. He beat Gary Neville before thumping a swerving shot past Schmeichel.
A half-chance for Cole apart, the next 20 minutes were all Barcelona with Rivaldo, playing just behind Anderson, causing all manner of problems. Schmeichel was peppered by shots, the best from Rivaldo, a 30-yard drive which he tipped around the post. The Dane, beaten by Rivaldo from a similar distance in the World Cup, screamed at his defender for more cover. They tried but they never did pin the quicksilver Brazilian down.
As Barcelona pressed, Jesper Blomqvist was harshly, but foolishly, booked for failing to retreat at a free-kick and Schmeichel had to make a sharp save from Anderson after 23 minutes. A minute later, United equalised. Blomqvist, on the left, fed a sweet pass into Yorke, who barely broke stride before rolling the ball inside the near post.
As United had barely left their half the home fans were stunned by their impudence but the home players rallied quickly and almost restored their lead five minutes later as Schmeichel fumbled Luis Figo's shot. He recovered brilliantly to shovel the ball away from Anderson.
It was an open game with the ball being moved swiftly to feet but the Catalan side enjoyed the majority of the possession. Down on the touchline Ferguson prowled his coaching box anxiously. United's inability to deal with Figo's dribbling clearly worried him and both Roy Keane and Irwin were booked for bringing the Portuguese down.
Yet United were growing in confidence and, after Yorke and Beckham had gone close, they conjured an outstanding goal after 52 minutes. Keane, on the left, played the ball inside. Yorke dummied allowing the ball to reach Cole, who played a one-two with the Tobagan before scoring with an aplomb which belied his recent spat with the England coach. But United were unable to hold the lead. Five minutes later, Rivaldo's free-kick wrong-footed Schmeichel and curled inside the far post.
For the moment, Rivaldo was in the ascendancy, Schmeichel holding on to a fierce shot only at the second attempt. But United were not cowed. Paul Scholes might have scored before Rivaldo levelled and Blomqvist went close soon after. Beckham, after a quiet first hour, now became influential and, after 68 minutes, he created United's third. A minute before he had picked out Yorke with a right-wing cross only for Ruud Hesp to make a superb save low to his left. This time Beckham got more power and so did Yorke, Hesp had no chance.
Five minutes later, nor did Schmeichel after more trickery from Rivaldo. Taking a Sergi cross on his chest, and with Gary Neville at his back, he twisted and leaped to score with an overhead kick.
The incredible Rivaldo's next trick was a rasping drive from 30 yards which struck the bar and Xavi and Giovanni also had chances as Barcelona upped the tempo. The attacks and counter-attacks continued to the end but, with Schmeichel making a great save from Giovanni, and Hesp an excellent one from Cole, the match was denied a late winner. Which was fitting, as with the Old Trafford tie, which also ended 3-3, neither side deserved to lose.
Barcelona (4-2-1-3): Hesp; Celades, Okunowo, Reiziger, Sergi; Xavi, Giovanni; Rivaldo; Figo, Anderson, Zenden. Substitutes not used: Arnau (gk), Ciric, Roger, Mario, Cuadrado.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Brown, G Neville, Stam, Irwin; Beckham (Butt, 80), Keane, Scholes, Blomqvist; Yorke, Cole. Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), P Neville, Solskjaer, Berg, Curtis, Wilson.
Referee: G Benko (Austria).