James Lawton: Bite and beauty take Ferguson's men to last eight

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In Milan Manchester United oozed the quality of masters of Europe. Here they looked nothing like that. Indeed, at times it seemed they could do with a few lessons in conviction from, yes, Liverpool.

However, you don't always make it to the top of the mountain simply with the surest feet. Sometimes you need the element of raw heart and in the end it came from, frankly, both the likeliest and the unlikeliest of the available sources.

Wayne Rooney, who had never done anything but run to the point of exhaustion, made it happen, carried United beyond their crisis, when he sent in the perfect cross for Cristiano Ronaldo. It was a touch of bite and beauty and for once Ronaldo had his mind – and his head – in precisely the right place. It meant that United were able to push back the very serious risk of being nagged and probed into the edges of disaster by Jose Mourinho's unlovely but, heaven knows, relentless fighters.

It was, despite an early breakthrough, the most perfectly timed relief for an embattled Sir Alex Ferguson. His hopes of a smooth exploitation of a plainly stated superiority had slowly eroded in the face of Internazionale's unwillingness to accept that really good manners insisted they lay down and die. This, of course, is not bred into Italian teams, and least of all by a Mourinho who arrived anxious to parade his credentials again in the event of Ferguson ever deciding to withdraw from the battle.

Internazionale will never be a beautiful team, they really don't have the means, but it is still the height of folly to show them even the odd hint that you might not be on top on your game. No, they don't often seize magically on the vulnerability of their opponents, not unless Zlatan Ibrahimovic finds the occasional vein of gold that recently persuaded Mourinho, if hardly anyone else, that he might be the best player in the world. However, there is the problem that if you don't put them away as briskly as you can there is every chance they will grow a little bigger, a little more awkward by the minute.

All of this was being absorbed with some concern in the United dressing room at half-time, because if ever a team had been negligent in the vital matter of pulling the trigger on the team who are in their fourth year of ruling Serie A it was the champions of Europe.

United were simply unrecognisable as the team who brought that mighty cathedral hush to San Siro two weeks earlier with the wit and the beauty of their play.

It was odd for several reasons and not least that United were presented with the one gift denied them in that often exquisite first-half performance in Milan – a goal. Here, Mourinho's men wrapped one up and handed it over to United as early the fourth minute, with the increasingly forlorn Patrick Vieira making a hugely generous contribution. Nemanja Vidic lost Vieira, utterly, when Ryan Giggs swept in a superb corner and his comfortably placed header should have brought instant tranquillisation. It didn't begin to do that. Giggs made a couple of beautifully intuitive runs, and severally potentially killing passes, but then, quite unaccountably, he started to give the ball away. Even more alarmingly, so did Michael Carrick, the author of all that cool, beautiful orchestration in the first leg.

When Paul Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov began to join in, the concern on Ferguson's face was becoming thunderous while, of course, Mourinho was beginning to come to life in the technical area. For the master of Old Trafford it was a chilling reminder of the night here five years ago when he first arrived on the scalp belt of the young Portuguese pretender, who was en route to unlikely Champions League glory with Porto.

But then for Ferguson there was some comfort in the fact that he still held the cutting edge of salvation if ever Ronaldo and Rooney found their way into a game on which so huge a part of his season hung so finely.

That they did so carried nothing like a guarantee right up the moment of their brilliant intervention – but when it happened, of course, it seemed like the most natural development in the world. That is the thing about the highest talent. When it happens, it mocks all those who thought it never would.

The blow for Mourinho was that while Ibrahimovic fell well short of any claims to the mastery of the world, especially 24 hours after the superb eruption of Fernando Torres, he did give his patron just a hint or two of possible vindication.

Just how slender an encouragement it was became clear enough when Rooney and Ronaldo announced the touch of champions. It is one, though, that will have to be applied with a little more precision in the next few months.