Instead of pursuing the one European trophy to have eluded them, United perished on the away goals rule, thanks to a first-half of sloppy defending. Even their proud sequence of 56 ties in England without defeat was saved only by Peter Schmeichel charging forward in the 89th minute, a goalkeeper turned poacher.
His strike and Paul Scholes' goal were rarities on a night of missed opportunities that included two clearances off the line and hitting the post and the bar. United had 18 shots on target but, for all their furious pressure, they could not quite unwrap the grip Volgograd had taken on the tie thanks to Vladimir Nidergaus and Oleg Veretennikov.
"We lost the game in the first 20 minutes," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "You go 2-0 down and you have a mountain to climb in Europe. They were bad goals to lose because the last thing we said before the match was that a clean sheet would win it for us. We knew we would make enough chances."
United had radiated determination in their 0-0 draw in Volgograd but it was hopelessly lacking in a first half that left the home crowd stunned and Rotor two goals ahead.
United's defence had looked uneasy coping with the fluidity of the Russian movement from the start but it disintegrated completely after 15 minutes. Nidergaus bewildered Steve Bruce and then passed to Alex Zernov, who was allowed a free passage into the right of area. To complete an inglorious passage of play for the home side, they stood and watched as the ball was played across the six-yard box for Nidergaus to walk the ball into an empty net.
Eight minutes later it was 2-0 and again Bruce was at fault, mis-controlling a pass from David Beckham, allowing Veretennikov to take possession. Russia's top scorer advanced 10 yards and with United's rearguard backing off, struck a low shot from the 20 yards that went in off the post.
Needing three goals to win the tie, United brought on Paul Scholes and were invigorated with a sense of urgency that had been missing hitherto. After 28 minutes Nicky Butt rose to head Phil Neville's cross past Andrei Samorukov but Alex Berketov's lunge cleared it off the line.
The home frustration increased five minutes later when Andy Cole, restored to the side after recovering from a hamstring injury, swooped on a poor clearance 10 yards out. His shot thumped against a post, however, and bounced to safety
At least that provided some encouragement and United attacked like fury after the interval, getting the goal they desperately needed on the hour. Scholes crossed, Ryan Giggs flicked on to Cole and when his shot was parried by the keeper Scholes pounced on the rebound.
That was a prelude to a hectic final 30 minutes in which Steve Bruce hit the bar with a diving header from Giggs' free-kick and United were denied a penalty when Alex Shmarko handled. The referee ruled the offence was on the edge of the area; the TV replay showed it was a yard inside.
With a defeat looming, Schmeichel came out of his goal and the final minutes were played out with him using his huge bulk in the Russian area. To good effect, too, as he headed in Giggs' corner with a minute remaining. By then it was too late. Cantona cannot return soon enough.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; P Neville, Bruce, Pallister, O'Kane (Scholes 25); Beckham (Cooke 82), Butt, Keane, Sharpe; Cole, Giggs.
Rotor Volgograd (3-2-3-2): Samorukov; Junenko, Berketov, Estchenko (Tsarenko 68); Shmarko, Burlachenko; Zernov (Iliuchin 72), Veretennikov, Korniets; Esipov, Nidergaus (Krivov, 77).
Referee: B Heynemann (Ger).Reuse content