It is a dish best served cold, they say, and that was how Sir Alex Ferguson delivered it. It was the ultimate act of revenge on the club which spat him out and left him to find his own way in the game 41 years ago, to send out a side of near Carling Cup proportions for a match they had actually billed the "Battle of Britain". "It's galling. We're the tadpoles of Europe," said one Rangers voice in the press box.
"I know more about Rangers than any other manager in Europe," Ferguson said before kick off – enough, evidently, to know that Scottish football has diminished terribly since the season Wembley last hosted the European Cup final in 1968. Celtic were the continent's reigning champions that year.
But Ferguson was placing his own reputation on the line by fielding the boldest line-up since Besiktas visited Old Trafford last November and ended United's long unbeaten home run in the competition against a side of relative juniors. Individuals like Fabio da Silva, Chris Smalling, Darron Gibson and Javier Hernandez, in whom Ferguson put faith last night, are the ones he keeps insisting can help United prevail against those who spend bigger in the inflated transfer market. Even before this game Ferguson had said that "the best thing we can do until the market becomes sensible is produce young players and buy young players and develop them".
That policy is not without its financial consequences – Smalling and Hernandez cost £20m between them – but United are still waiting for evidence that the latest youth contingent can deliver. Wayne Rooney needed no time to demonstrate that money talked: his hat-trick on his Champions League debut against Fenerbahce came six years ago this month, but some of the current young breed are just not there yet.
The defenders looked capable enough. Smalling, after a nervy short pass in front of his own box seconds in which almost put his own defence in trouble, recovered his poise to look comfortable in the place of Nemanja Vidic. But United still looked in need of the inspiration a playmaking midfielder would give which is something Gibson, with his work rate and power from range, does not. A half-dozen shots from distance: close, but none on target.
So no, it was not a night for United fans to gaze on the array of youth in front of them and marvel, save perhaps for the fleeting occasions when Hernandez's actions suggested that someone is listening to the prayers he says when he kneels in the centre circle before kick-off.
When Hernandez and Rooney – the saint and the sinner if ever there were such a pair – laid off into the right-hand channel and raced into the area, the first half's best opportunity knocked but Rooney squandered the cross. Two minutes later Hernandez showed wonderful powers of elevation for someone 5ft 9in tall, rising to Fabio's cross.
But the opportunities were otherwise limited. When Hernandez and Rooney again raced forward together just beyond the hour and Old Trafford waited for Rooney to thread the deadly pass, Hernandez took a tumble and his strike partner was left to hit Rangers brick wall which was indomitable all night. When another of the players Ferguson has put such faith in, 25-year-old Antonio Valencia, turned his ankle so terribly and Ryan Giggs was called on in his place, the youth development mission took another dreadful blow. Giggs took up a position on the right but was soon out on the left, racing past his defender and putting in the first dangerous cross for Rooney all night.
But it was the absence of another of the more seasoned players, Berbatov, with his deft touches and imaginative passes which most affected the course of the night. No one had his game-changing quality. Ferguson would dearly have liked to have made a point against the club which lost faith in him but it is the players in whom he put faith who give him more pause for thought today. They do not currently carry the air of champions.