Gary Neville sustained a torn groin muscle and will be out for four to six weeks, which means he will miss England's World Cup qualifiers against Wales and Northern Ireland. Neither his substitute, Kieran Richardson, nor Paul Scholes finished the game, yet even a makeshift United side always knew too much for the spirited Hungarian champions.
United, showing five changes from Saturday's defeat of Aston Villa, survived a volatile opening to put the tie beyond reach midway through the first half. After just six minutes, Tamas Sandor hooked the ball over the bar as it fell to him when United struggled to clear a corner. As United retaliated, Neville fell clutching his thigh after delivering a cross and was driven off - across the pitch - in what was essentially a golf cart. The humour of the situation was doubtless lost on Sir Alex Ferguson, who would have recalled that the last time United played at this venue, Wes Brown suffered a broken ankle.
Richardson came on for Neville, the new England midfielder filling in at left-back. Brown switched to the right and Heinze to central defence. It may have concerned Ferguson that Rio Ferdinand thus became the only member of his back four to have played regularly this season, but he was soon rising from his plastic chair to acclaim the goal which left Debrecen needing an implausible, nay impossible, 5-1 victory.
Like the curse of the right-back, there was an eerie familiarity about the way events unfolded. Darren Fletcher's corner reached the far post, where Heinze rose unchallenged to collect only his second goal for United. Exactly a week earlier, in the same stadium, he had headed Argentina's winner against Hungary.
Alan Smith, whose impersonation of Roy Keane extended to a booking for fouling Zsombor Kerekes, was increasingly pivotal to United's cohesion, especially after Scholes gave way to Phil Bardsley after coming off worse in a tackle before the break.
Edwin van der Sar, having ended the first half with a smothering save from Sandor's free-kick, now stretched to tip over a shot from Tibor Dombi as he overlapped down the right.
However, Heinze's benefit night continued on the hour as Ryan Giggs swung in a free-kick, the South American climbing to glance the ball into the far corner. Four minutes later, after Ruud van Nistelrooy's break and Cristiano Ronaldo's cross, Richardson added a third with a fierce diagonal shot from 18 yards.
Bojan Brnovic hit a post before Richardson was transported to the touchline with a calf strain, leaving United to negotiate a relatively comfortable final 20 minutes with 10 men.
Debrecen (4-4-2): Csernyanszki; Kiss, Eger, Mate, Halmosi; Dombi (Szathari, 56), Vukmir, Sandor, Boor (Madar,77) ; Bogdanovic (Brnovic, h-t), Kerekes. Substitutes not used: Tomic (gk), Komolosi, Bernath, Sidibe.
Manchester United (4-3-2-1): Van der Sar; Neville (Richardson, 15), Ferdinand, Brown, Heinze; Fletcher (Miller, 61), Smith, Scholes (Bardsley, h-t); Ronaldo, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Rooney, Park Ji-Sung, Pique.
Referee: M Busacca (Switzerland).
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