Like their Second Division counterparts, United are slowly coming to terms with the knowledge that, despite an honourable campaign, their cup final dream is over. Chesterfield went out of the FA Cup on Tuesday, United went out of the European Champions' Cup last night.
Like Chesterfield they will also feel they blew their chance in the first game. The goal they conceded to Borussia Dortmund in Germany - and the ones they failed to score - put them at a disadvantage even before kick- off last night. Seven minutes after it, it was trebled when Lars Ricken capitalised on defensive sloppiness to put the German champions 2-0 up on aggregate.
It left United needing to score three times while not conceding once. It was too much to ask even though they created enough chances to score twice as many. They could not even score once and thus fell to their third home defeat in four matches after 56 games and 40 years unbeaten. It was also their fifth defeat of the competition.
"It was a mixture of bad luck and bad finishing," said Alex Ferguson with more accuracy than his team. It was also due to the irrepressible performance of Jurgen Kohler, the veteran German defender, who was doubtful for this match through sickness.
In the event he was a one-man barrier to United, getting a foot, or head, in where it mattered over and over again. "He was decisive, I am not sure we would have won without him," said Ottmar Hitzfeld, the Dortmund manager.
Gary Pallister does a similar job for United but last night, as in the first leg, getting his foot in proved United's undoing. A poorly cleared ball came to Andy Moller on the left and he found Ricken unmarked on the edge of the box. As Pallister closed in, he shot and, with a slight deflection off Pallister's boot, it went past Peter Schmeichel and inside the far post. Poor Pallister: Rene Tretschok's first-leg goal had been deflected off him too.
From that moment Dortmund were headed for Munich on 28 May. There they will meet Juventus, who thrashed Ajax 4-1 in Turin last night. The Italians will start favourites but, if Dortmund can pick from a full squad, they will have a fair chance.
Last night they were missing five internationals, long-term casualty Julio Cesar, Matthias Sammer and Paulo Sousa - their most creative players - and Ibrahim Tanko and Steffan Freund. Stefan Reuter lasted just 23 minutes. Compared to that list, the absence of United's Roy Keane (suspended) and Ryan Giggs and Denis Irwin (both on the bench) seemed minor.
United had begun well and thought they had scored after four minutes when David Beckham's free-kick was won by David May and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer touched in the rebound. Old Trafford exulted, but the Swiss referee disallowed it for "climbing" by May.
May then headed over from a corner - not that Dortmund had proved as susceptible as Liverpool to the four-man run - then Andy Cole broke down the right. He crossed hard and low from the byline, Stefan Klos could only get a hand to the ball, and it came to Eric Cantona. The goal gaped, Old Trafford rose to its collective feet, then slumped down in disbelief as Kohler took advantage of the Frenchman's hesitancy to block and clear.
The incident symbolised Cantona's evening. He had a terrible match and it looked even worse next to Cole, who was having one of his best games for United. He had forced Kohler into an important block with a volley from Gary Neville's cross in the opening minute and continued to find space and bring others into play. Once again, though, he was let down by his finishing. Though he did force a good save from Klos early in the second half, he could have done better with a couple of further chances.
Not that he was alone. Pallister headed a Cole cross wide from close in, Cantona missed from all angles while Giggs's one-footedness let him down close in. When Ferguson said "I didn't see anything they were better at than us", finishing came to mind.
Cole finally got the ball in the net with four minutes left but Giggs was penalised for dangerous play. It was that sort of night for United, but unlike Chesterfield they have a realistic chance of doing better next year.
Manchester United (4-3-1-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, May (Scholes, 87), Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Johnsen, Butt; Cantona; Cole, Solskjaer (Giggs, 57). Substitutes not used: Irwin, Poborsky, Van der Gouw (gk).
Borussia Dortmund (3-5-2): Klos; Kohler, Feiersinger, Kree; Reuter (Tretschok, 24), Ricken (Zorc, 61), Moller, Lambert, Heinrich; Riedle (Herrlich, 73), Chapuisat. Substitutes not used: Reinhardt, De Beer (gk).
Referee: U Meier (Switzerland).
More reports, results, page 27
Juventus hit four
Juventus, the European Cup holders, thrashed Ajax 4-1 in Turin last night to complete a 6-2 aggregate semi-final triumph in the competition. Attilio Lombardo, Christian Vieri, Nicola Amoruso and Zinedine Zidane were on target for the Italians, Mario Melchiot replied.