Only once, in more than a thousand matches spanning 47 seasons, has a team recovered from conceding a two-goal deficit in the home leg of a European Cup tie. That is the measure of the task facing Deportivo La Coruña at Old Trafford tonight.
The team the Galicians are seeking to emulate are the Ajax of Johan Cruyff who, in 1969, reversed a 3-1 quarter-final first-leg home defeat by Benfica to force a play-off, which they won 3-0. So rarely does a team recover from losing at home that on only six other occasions, in the competition's long history, has even a one-goal deficit been overcome, most memorably by Nottingham Forest against Dinamo Berlin in the 1980 quarter-final.
So Manchester United, despite Roy Keane's injury and Paul Scholes' suspension, can feel confident about holding on to the two-goal advantage they established in La Riazor last week. After all, they won the trophy, against Bayern Munich three years ago, with those very same players suspended.
That said, Keane will be missed. In the Premiership this season United average 2.24 points per game with him in the side, 1.56 without him. Moreover, although David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron were yesterday declared fit to play neither will be match-sharp. With Nicky Butt doubtful with a migraine, following a collision during Saturday's match at Leicester, Sir Alex Ferguson has little choice but to press them into service. If Butt fails to make it Phil Neville is likely to replace him in a midfield which, with Beckham carrying an ankle injury, and Veron suffering a foot problem, will have only one fully fit first-choice midfielder.
Not that Ryan Giggs anticipates any problems. "I think we can win the competition," he said. "Last week we looked strong in all aspects and if we continue to produce performances like that we will have every chance."
However, if any team can defy the odds La Coruña can. They have already won at Old Trafford this season, have a habit of making dramatic comebacks, and won the King's Cup in the Santiago Bernabeu, thus upsetting the start of Real Madrid's centenary celebrations.
But if United can avoid conceding an early goal – as has been their wont at Old Trafford on European nights – La Coruña are likely to lose heart. Their pre-match comments, while outwardly defiant, suggest a lack of genuine belief.
Jose Molina, the goalkeeper, said: "If we do manage to get an early goal that will give us an extra boost, but whatever happens we have to maintain the same spirit throughout."
Mauro Silva, who is doubtful with a calf injury, added: "It is going to be difficult, but it is not impossible. We have to really push ourselves to the limit, with the mentality of playing and fighting in order to get through the tie."
As well as Silva, for whom Aldo Duscher stands by, La Coruña will give fitness tests to Sergio and Cesar. Diego Tristan, who scored twice at Old Trafford in October, and struck a weekend hat-trick against Real Mallorca, can expect to be booed after causing Beckham's ankle injury.
There will also be plenty of eyes focused on Veron who has yet to live up to the expectations engendered by his £28.1m fee. The Argentine has struggled to come to terms with the pace of the Premiership and the balance of United's midfield. Tonight, in the European arena, and with Scholes and Keane absent, he has the chance to demonstrate his command.
"Seba came back from Rome on Sunday and trained fantastically well," Ferguson said. "Hopefully the treatment he's had will have put the injury to bed.
"I think the criticism has been unfair," Ferguson added. "He's had a lot to cope with coming into the country and the culture. It's a different kind of game over here and players do need time to settle. The sheer ferocity has probably surprised him. It's bang, bang, bang all the time, but he'll cope with that."
In 91 European matches United have never been beaten at home by more than one goal and Ferguson, the only United manager to lose a European Cup tie at Old Trafford, does not expect tonight to be another first.
"This tie is far from over and it would be stupid to spoil what we've already achieved through over-confidence," he said. "That will not happen."
Manchester United (probable, 4-4-2): Barthez; G Neville, Johnsen, Blanc*, Silvestre; Beckham, Veron, Butt* or P Neville, Giggs; Solskjaer, van Nistelrooy*.
Deportivo La Coruña (probable, 4-2-3-1): Molina; Scaloni, Naybet, Cesar, Romero*; Silva or Duscher, Sergio; Victor, Valeron, Fran; Tristan.
Referee: M Merk (Germany).
*misses next match if booked
TEAMS WHO HAVE WON THEIR EUROPEAN CUP TIE AFTER LOSING A HOME FIRST LEG
1955-56 1st round: Milan bt Saarbrücken 7-5 on aggregate (3-4, 4-1).
1968-69 Quarter-final: Ajax bt Benfica in play-off (1-3, 3-1, 3-0).
1979-80 Semi-final: Nottingham Forest bt Dinamo Berlin 3-2 on aggregate (0-1, 3-1).
1993-94 Prelim round: Skonto Riga bt Olimpia Ljubljana on penalties (0-1, 1-0).
1993-94 1st round: Steaua Bucharest bt Croatia Zagreb on away goals (1-2, 3-2).
1995-96 Semi-final: Ajax bt Panathinaikos 3-1 on aggregate (0-1, 3-0).
1998-99 2nd qual round: Dynamo Kiev bt Sparta Prague on penalties (0-1, 1-0).Reuse content