CSKA Moscow's manager, Leonid Slutski, learnt to coach in what used to be called Stalingrad – the city that became a byword for defiance. And so, metaphorically, did the footballers bred by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Other teams, for whom qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League was more or less assured, might have taken a defeat but Manchester United, especially when inspired by Wayne Rooney, are not the accepting kind.
Ferguson had planned to leave the new father on the bench on the basis that "he had not been getting much sleep lately". Three-one down and facing the heaviest home defeat in United's European history, the Stretford End was calling on him long before his arrival spurred the home side into half an hour of relentless attack.
With six minutes remaining, it appeared that the heroics of their goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, who made one astonishing double save from Rooney and Michael Owen, would ensure CSKA – who like Tottenham last year appear to have been energised by the removal of Juande Ramos as manager – would hold out. Instead, as so many teams have done here, the men from Moscow cracked at the death. First Paul Scholes' header gave United hope and then a speculative strike from Antonio Valencia cannoned off Georgi Schennikov to leave Akinfeev horribly stranded and United through.
Nevertheless, there were questions hanging in the November night air, not least how a side like CSKA, who in European terms are moderate opposition, should have opened up United's defence so easily. They will meet better teams this season, starting with Chelsea on Sunday. And while fatherhood may cost Rooney sleep, he will lose none at all at being replaced as United's main striker. No matter how little Kai Rooney behaves, his dad will start at Stamford Bridge and so will Nemanja Vidic in central defence.
This was, however, an evening that burnished the romance of United in their long affair with the European Cup. "One of the great pleasures of managing this football club is that you get finishes like these," Ferguson smiled. "Gary Neville was fantastic, he put in more crosses than the Vatican. It was the sort of show that made you think of him at his absolute peak."
And this was the sort of display, naïve defensively, brilliant going forward, that made you think of United's forays into Europe when Neville was at his peak – their group games in the season Ferguson won his first European Cup, 1998-99 were littered with 3-3 draws.
If Vidic does start at Chelsea, it will not be at the expense of Jonny Evans, who does not plan to be an understudy at Old Trafford for much longer. However, the young Ulsterman did not anticipate being deceived by Alan Dzagoev, who grew up in Ossetia, where Russia borders Georgia, a region with a history as troubled as Belfast.
When Dzagoev took a chest-down from Tomas Necid and sprinted away from Evans, he appeared to have been forced too wide to attempt anything else other than a cross. Instead he shot and the ball bisected defender and Edwin van der Sar's apologetic, outstretched arm, the actions of a man trying to wave a taxi down in the rain knowing the cab will not stop.
Immediately after Owen's equaliser, CSKA broke through again. Milos Krasic, who had caused Manchester United plenty of problems in their narrow, 1-0 victory in the Luzhniki last month, burst through, took the ball round Van der Sar and at the last moment, with the goal gaping, he overbalanced but not enough to miss.
In the brief, and you imagine bitterly-resented TV interview he is forced to give at the interval, Ferguson said his team had to defend better. Their manager's breath was still warm on the dressing-room walls when United caved in again. Dzagoev's free-kick was met with a muscular - and completely unchallenged - header from Vasili Berezutski. Ferguson noted that it was the first goal his side had conceded from a set-piece in nearly a year.
All this meant that Owen's first Champions League goal for United rather got lost in the wash. He had already scuffed one close-range effort into Akinfeev's arms and miscued another completely when Nani's back-flick found him once more clear on goal and this time he did not fail.
To cap it all, Manchester United should have had a penalty when Darren Fletcher was blatantly brought down by Berezutski's brother, Aleksi. The referee promptly booked the Scot for the most improbable of dives. His manager thought it "the worst decision I have seen in my lifetime" and when Ferguson defends the award of penalties at Old Trafford, he will always have Olegario Benquerenca.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Brown, Evans, F Da Silva (Evra, 58); Valencia, Fletcher, Scholes, Nani (Rooney, 57); Macheda (Obertan, 82), Owen. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Anderson, O'Shea, Gibson.
CSKA Moscow (4-4-1-1): Akinfeev; A Berezutski, V Berezutski, Ignashevich, Schennikov; Krasic, Semberas, Aldonin, Mamaev (Rahimic, 72); Dzagoev (Carvalho, 72); Necid (Piliev, 90). Substitutes not used: Pomazan (gk), Maazou, Odiah, Grigoriev.
Referee: O Benquerenca (Portugal).
Results so far: Besiktas 0 Man Utd 1, Wolfsburg 3 CSKA 1; CSKA 2 Besiktas 1, Man Utd 2 Wolfsburg 1, CSKA 0 Man Utd 1, Wolfsburg 0 Besiktas 0, Man Utd 3 CSKA 3, Besiktas 0 Wolfsburg 3.
Manchester United's remaining fixtures: 25 Nov Besiktas (h); 8 Dec Wolfsburg (a).Reuse content