For the second time this season Manchester United produced one of their finer European performances only to be undone by the kind of late goal they had come to regard almost as their trademark.
Against Deportivo La Coruña, it cost them the game; the price Sir Alex Ferguson paid last night was two Champions' League points and the satisfaction of overseeing what would have been United's first victory on German soil since Matt Busby ruled Old Trafford.
Paulo Sergio's equaliser three minutes from the end of a match Bayern had dominated territorially was the product of a defensive error, albeit from Mickaël Silvestre, the man who had sent over the cross that Ruud van Nistelrooy turned home for United's opener, against the odds and the run of play. It fell to Paulo Sergio to slot Robert Kovac's through ball past Fabien Barthez for Bayern's 50th goal in competitive football this season.
However, had the keeper not made a fabulous save from Ciriaco Sforza on the brink of stoppage time, the result would have been 2-1. Given what happened in the European Cup final two years ago, that would have been an irony indeed.
Ferguson, whose post-match press conference was a masterpiece of cold, curt brevity, thought the defining moment was the thunderous shot from Roy Keane five minutes from the end and two minutes from Paulo Sergio's equaliser that crashed against Oliver Kahn's post. Had it gone in, Manchester United would surely have been able to claim their first victory against one of the big beasts of European football since Valencia were overcome at Old Trafford two seasons ago.
Nevertheless, Ferguson admitted he would have settled for a point before a ball had been kicked. Given the fact that Ryan Giggs was forced to withdraw with a hamstring injury, which under the grim circumstances of United's form represented a blow upon a bruise, it might have been the very limit of his ambitions. Quinton Fortune, on paper, is no kind of replacement, although the South African did have United's one concrete chance of a sterile first half, heading David Beckham's free-kick a yard past Kahn's right-hand post.
The Scot's game plan was to absorb Bayern pressure in the first half and then adopt more adventurous tactics after the break. They were to work almost to perfection. "I thought Manchester United were very passive in the first period," said Ottmar Hitzfeld, Ferguson's friend and opposite number. "But a 1-1 draw was a fair result because they were the better team in the second half. I knew Manchester United would play good football, whatever the media say about them, they are still a dangerous team. Going forward, they have Van Nistelrooy who is an excellent player and Veron to provide the stimulus in midfield. I knew they could perform beyond themselves."
It was, however, in defence that most anxiety had been expended on United's behalf, although last night they proved equal to most of the challenges tossed towards them. By the time Bayern won their first corner in the 19th minute, they were already in charge of the midfield. As the German crowd launched into an ironic version of "Rule Britannia", Hasan Salihamidzic twice came close; first forcing Barthez to punch fiercely away and then on the very stroke of half-time somehow failing to turn the ball home from six yards when running on to meet one of the few free-kicks Stefan Effenberg took with any precision.
It irked Hitzfeld that his side did not capitalise on their first-half dominance; the final pass often lacked accuracy and so when he gave the United centre-halves the slip to meet Owen Hargreaves' cross did Elber's header.
When Barthez was penalised by the referee, Anders Frisk, for holding the ball for longer than the permitted six seconds, Effenberg, playing his first full game since the start of the season, struck the indirect free-kick unimaginatively into the wall.
As the night temperatures fell, so Bayern's frustrations grew, epitomised by Hitzfeld's decision to throw on Carsten Jancker and adopt more basic and unsophisticated tactics. Nevertheless, it was the forced substitution of Denis Irwin by Silvestre that created United's breakthrough as the much-maligned Frenchman tore down the left flank and crossed low and hard for Van Nistelrooy to turn in from less than six yards.
The Dutchman had spent most of the match finding new ways to be caught offside and again, acting as a lone striker, he was given too little support by his midfield. But in his time at United he has scored goals in big games and for Ferguson, here was vindication for his tactics and his self-belief.
Bayern Munich (4-4-2): Kahn; Sajnol, Kuffour, R Kovac, Lizerazu; Salihamidzic (Zickler, 75) Hargreaves, Effenberg (Sforza, 67), Paulo Sergio; Pizarro, Elber. Substitutes not used: Fink, Tarnat, Linke, Jancker, Dreher (gk).
Manchester United (4-1-4-1): Barthez; G Neville, Brown, Blanc, Irwin (Silvestre, h-t); Keane; Beckham, Veron, Scholes, Fortune; Van Nistelrooy (Yorke, 85). Substitutes not used: P Neville, Butt, Chadwick, Solskjaer, Carroll (gk).
Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).Reuse content