The sight of David Beckham jogging along the touchline was proof that in his final months at the helm Sir Alex Ferguson is ready to take any measures, no matter how ruthless, to keep Manchester United on course in Europe.
Beckham's omission against Boavista was a greater risk than when he was dropped against Leeds in February last year for failing to attend training because his son was ill. David O'Leary's side were then challenging strongly for the title but, as happened on Wednesday, Ferguson was vindicated by the result. The England captain was missed only during set-pieces. Juan Sebastian Veron stepped up his game but the majority of his free-kicks were fielded by spectators in the Stretford End.
However, if it was a gamble by Ferguson, it worked splendidly in a competition where there are few signs of the crises which have engulfed the champions in the Premiership.
There is usually little correlation between home and European form. Of the nine English teams to have lifted the European Cup only three (Liverpool in 1977 and 1984 and United two years ago) have done so while winning their domestic title and, interestingly, they all reached domestic cup finals while doing so. It says something for the pressures Ferguson faces that his farewell season will not be counted an unequivocal success unless he takes both trophies.
Since the Fabien Barthez-inspired blunders that handed victory to Deportivo La Coruña, Manchester United have mixed two solid away performances in the Champions' League with two impressive victories at Old Trafford in which they have not conceded a goal.
"There were no daft mistakes," said Roy Keane, who has proved consistently that he, rather than Beckham, is Ferguson's linchpin in Europe. "We are always going to create chances because we have enough match-winning players. It's just at the other end that we have had a problem, but against Boavista we looked solid."
Wednesday's win came at a price for United's defence. Wes Brown was already out for two months with a knee injury, Gary Neville picked up a groin strain while Laurent Blanc ended the match with a broken nose. With Ronny Johnsen still recovering from a hamstring tear, Ferguson may have to bring in reinforcements, although the most obvious candidate, PSV Eindhoven's Kevin Hofland, is cup-tied for the Champions' League.
Against a team not noted for the potency of its forward line they held firm. "It was so important for the team to keep a clean sheet, because we have conceded so many goals," said Mickaël Silvestre, one of the few fully fit defenders available to Ferguson. "When you look at the positions in the group, they are what people expect; Manchester United and Munich are top and we have to make sure it continues that way."
If all goes well, United could be through to the quarter-final stages, where they have fallen in three of the past four seasons, in the space of two matches against Nantes – a side who perfectly illustrate the gap that can arise between European and domestic performance.
Having beaten Lazio home and away in the first group stage, they find themselves bottom of the French First Division. However, even in the Champions' League they appear to have run out of steam entirely with their last six games having produced only one goal. Viorel Moldovan, Coventry City's former striker now plying his trade in the Stade Beaujoire, commented that his coach, Reynald Denoueix, had no idea how to halt the slide.
"He does not know what to do. None of us can understand how it is possible to have had such a good run in Europe early on while in the league we are on the very edge of disaster," he said.
Disaster for Nantes would be relegation from the league they won in May; for Manchester United it would be not retaining their title. It is hard to believe that in February they will meet on equal terms.Reuse content