Their Champions' League reckoning awaits them in Lisbon next month and it will be a match that defines the future of Manchester United, the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson and the whole plan upon which the Glazer regime is founded. Lose to Benfica on 7 December and United will have to contemplate a fear that already haunts Old Trafford: that their 63-year-old manager is incapable of delivering the success that will sustain his club's towering debts.
For a club so addicted to those dramatic, epochal moments, a goalless draw with Villarreal is not what will be remembered in a month that has seen the defeat of the Premiership champions Chelsea and the departure of Roy Keane but its implications are just as serious. When United visit Benfica, where only a victory will guarantee that they qualify for the Champions' League knockout stages, it will be a mission to preserve a season that has fallen victim too often to the volatile nature of their form.
The last time United won away in the Champions' League was against Panathinaikos in November 2003 and it was Diego Forlan who scored their winner. They had good reason to be thankful that the Uruguayan striker was not fit to play last night for Villarreal, who, Ferguson argued, offered precious little in the way of attack but, in their two attempts on goal, had just as many chances on target as United. This was not Ferguson's side's worst performance in recent memory but their inability to break down the Spanish team promised little optimism should they reach the knockout stages.
A draw at the Stadium of Light will suffice if Villarreal beat Lille at home but scuttling into the next round in second place in Group D will hardly be a launch-pad for Ferguson's second European Cup success. "In the Champions' League in the past few years there have been big, big surprises," Ferguson said. "It is amazing what has happened. One of my favourites is Lyon, I think they could win it and that's bypassing all the big names." He seemed to be suggesting that adopting the status of outsiders would be the best approach for his United side and it is hardly one that inspires confidence. Last night, Gary Neville and Louis Saha both returned from injury to make substitute appearances which means only Gabriel Heinze and Ryan Giggs are among the first-team players still missing from Ferguson's side. For the three Glazer brothers watching from the directors' box, this team represented close to the full extent of their playing strength and it hardly looked ready to conquer the continent.
"We are optimistic, it was a reasonable performance," Ferguson said. "When you draw 0-0 it's easy to say 'we didn't score'." But United have failed to score in seven of their last eight games in the Champions' League and after Cristiano Ronaldo's header slipped wide with 22 minutes remaining, they relied upon the brilliance of Wayne Rooney to open up their opponents.
Just one banner paying tribute to the "Red Legend" as well as the occasional mournful chant for "Keano" marked the passing into Old Trafford history of their now departed captain. In the first five minutes it seemed unlikely that he would be missed. Rooney pulled down a bouncing ball in the area and his shot was saved by Mariano Barbosa. Two minutes later, Rooney exchanged passes with Darren Fletcher and his shot struck Ruud van Nistelrooy. But just as they threatened Villarreal's immediate destruction, United seized up. It was 25 minutes into the game before they created another chance and by then Old Trafford had quietened into a tense, funereal mood. Even without Juan Roman Riquelme in the centre of midfield, Villarreal had little trouble wrestling back control of the game. Ronaldo headed Paul Scholes' corner over the bar but United did not manage another shot on target all half.
The Villarreal central defender Gonzalo Rodriguez was impeccable in his handling of Van Nistelrooy and there were times when United, Scholes especially, strained to control their tempers at the ease with which the Spanish side went to ground under challenges. Ferguson disagreed with the addition of just three minutes extra time and pointed out that his introduction of Saha was a "gamble" intended to win the game. "When Villarreal counter-attacked, they ran down the clock," he said. "The draw was important for them." Even so, United never threatened to overrun Villarreal. Rooney laid off a pass in the area to Park Ji-Sung that the midfielder lingered too long over and the 20-year-old striker blazed a shot over the bar with three minutes remaining following Saha's flick. A free-kick on the edge of the area won at the death by Scholes was struck limply along the turf by Van Nistelrooy and with it went the very last chance for United to score.
The last time United visited Lisbon to play Benfica, it was 1966 and a different Stadium of Light to the re-built version Rooney graced at Euro 2004 the summer before last. That game, 39 years ago, marked the beginning of an era at the club that culminated with the European Cup two years later - should they fail there next month, then the promise of momentous change will, once again, not be far behind.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown (Neville, 73), Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea; Fletcher (Park, 53), Smith (Saha, 81), Scholes, Ronaldo; Rooney, Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Richardson, Pique, Rossi
Villarreal (4-2-3-1): Barbosa; Javi Venta, Rodriguez, Pena, Arruabarrena; Roger Garcia (Hector Font, 65), Tacchinardi (Josico, 75), Senna, Sorin; Figueroa (Xisco, 86), Jose Mari. Substitutes not used: Viera, Cesar Arzo, Kromkamp, Cazorla, Xisco.
Referee: M De Santis (Italy).
* Lille and Villarreal drew 0-0 last night to ensure Group D is still wide open. Seven teams have qualified for the last 16 - Bayern Munich, Juventus, Ajax, Arsenal, Barcelona, Lyon and Real Madrid. Bayern crushed Rapid Vienna 4-0 with Roy Makaay scoring twice while Juve beat Bruges 1-0 with a late goal from Alessandro Del Piero. Barcelona won Group C with a 3-1 win over Werder Bremen, with Ronaldinho once again outstanding.Reuse content