Outside the emptying stadium Gary Neville was searching for a word. That word was "goal". The Manchester United defender was attempting to explain why in the context of Champions' League Group D, a 0-0 draw with an unremarkable Sparta Prague was not a disaster.
Outside the emptying stadium Gary Neville was searching for a word. That word was "goal". The Manchester United defender was attempting to explain why in the context of Champions' League Group D, a 0-0 draw with an unremarkable Sparta Prague was not a disaster. United were still two points clear of Fenerbahce in third place, they still had two matches at Old Trafford to come. "Our main, our main... goal... is to get through this group and we are on course to do that."
In narrow terms Neville was entirely correct in his assessment. Despite United's stuttering away form in Europe - this had been their fifth failure to win abroad in their last seven attempts in the Champions' League proper - an undemanding Group D should be hurdled with ease before they face their final journey of the year, to Istanbul in December.
However, there was a sense of unease lingering in the chill air of an October night in Prague. Even when not in peak form United have seldom lacked for goals and certainly not when Sir Alex Ferguson has been able to fall back on a string of strikers as formidable as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Alan Smith and Louis Saha, whose total value is £66m.
Those who imagined in the wake of Rooney's astonishing debut against Fenerbahce that United would simply steamroller their way through the rest of the season have been stung out of their complacency. But for Alan Smith's muscular header in the desperate closing moments against Middlesbrough, United would have failed to score in three subsequent fixtures, all against teams that are well organised if not inspired in the way of an Arsenal, who sweep towards Old Trafford on a tidal wave of form for Sunday's crucial Premiership encounter.
Defeat would leave United 14 points adrift of the champions; a statistic that against a club that would not have lost domestically for 50 matches and 17 months would damn Ferguson's attempts to wrest back the League title. Only victory will be acceptable but, in Neville's eyes, only victory is ever acceptable at Old Trafford. "I've never played a game for Manchester United in 11 years where it's acceptable not to win at home. Why should we change because Arsenal are coming?"
Ferguson frequently recalls that in his early days at Old Trafford, United enjoyed a formidable record against Liverpool without ever threatening to dislodge Kenny Dalglish's stranglehold on the championship. Recently, it has been the same with Arsenal. Since seizing the title in Manchester on that dreamlike night in May 2002, the six subsequent meetings between the two clubs have produced a solitary Arsenal victory, in an FA Cup tie at Old Trafford.
"Over the last year and a half, Arsenal have been in a fantastic run of form but they haven't beaten Manchester United in that time," said Neville. "We are confident of our abilities against the top teams. It was not just winning the FA Cup semi-final last season; we played well in the League at Highbury, we played well at Old Trafford and missed a penalty in the last minute. These games go in cycles and if we can get a goal it can change the whole outlook."
The march towards this match has hardly run smoothly. Ferguson began the week with another condemnation of Arsenal's "mob tactics" following Van Nistelrooy's failed penalty last year, arguing that the ringleaders, especially presumably Martin Keown, should have been handed the same kind of sentence Eric Cantona was given nine years ago for assaulting a fan.
Arsène Wenger's retort that the United manager wanted his players shot and should calm down was hardly calculated as a diplomatic response. All this is before the official press conferences are staged to talk up a match that is as near to Real Madrid v Barcelona as the Premiership gets.
Neville displayed rather more maturity than the two managers. "There is no score to settle, all we have to do on Sunday is win a football match.
"We are not going to go into the game thinking about what happened last year or three years ago. We have to win a football match in front of our own fans.
"And whether it's against Arsenal on Sunday or whoever, we have got to start picking up points. We can't keep asking other teams to beat Arsenal if we are not going to do it ourselves."Reuse content