With a team young enough for landlords to demand birth certificates at the bar, just about the last thing they could afford to lose at the moment is a seasoned international. A lame Roy Keane was a heavy price to pay for an otherwise satisfactory night in the Uefa Cup.
No matter the whys and wherefores of Paul Ince's transfer from Old Trafford to Internazionale, of Milan, one reason why Alex Ferguson could feel reasonably sanguine about his departure was that Keane was there to fill the breach. "He is going to be some player," he said last season, "a very important part of Manchester United's future." Pressed to compare Ince to Keane, he answered only with a smile.
Which was not how he greeted the news that the Republic of Ireland international will be missing for at least three weeks and possibly more with a hamstring injury. "It made the result even better," he said, dragging something from the wreckage of his central midfield. He was clearly concerned.
Losing Keane deprives Ferguson of his principal ball winner, instigator of attacks and joint top scorer. Brian McClair will be the replacement but, able though he is, he will not be able to provide the drive and tackling power of Keane, who provided a 20-minute cameo of colossal authority in Volgograd before limping off.
That was the considerable downside of a match in which United displayed a determination and discipline that was absent on their trips to Barcelona and Gothenburg in last year's Champions' League. There were pluses, and deflated though Ferguson was by Keane's injury, he could look at both ends of the field and count his blessings.
The big plus was the first full game from Ryan Giggs since the FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace on 9 April. Last year was a wretched one for Giggs, whose gifts were belittled by a persistent hamstring problem and whose elevation to the rank of genius was questioned for the first time. Instead of the new George Best, the tired and dispirited Welsh winger would have been hard put to displace the infuriating, inconsistent waif of the 1980s, Jesper Olsen.
On Tuesday, however, the exuberant Giggs, who reportedly attracted an offer of pounds 12m from Milan when that was regarded as a lot of money, seemed to be making a comeback. He was quick, skilful but, most of all, confident and on another occasion might have had a hat-trick. Sergei Junenko, the poor defender assigned the task of marking him, had a wretched evening.
"On a night like that he's a joy to watch," Steve Bruce, Giggs' captain, said. "Last season he was struggling for the first time in four years but you can see the confidence returning. He was brilliant against Volgograd, the Russians didn't seem to know how to handle him."
Which is precisely the opposite of Bruce and his fellow defenders, who weathered what Volgograd could throw at them with some alacrity. "We didn't look like losing goals," Ferguson said of his team's first clean sheet of the season. "We've been making mistakes at the back but although they were quick and tried to beat us with one-twos, Peter Schmeichel never looked like he would be beaten."
Similar assurance at Old Trafford in a fortnight should see them safely through to the second round.Reuse content