Not even the late introduction of Cristiano Ronaldo could spark United into life as the Portuguese teenager failed to take two decent chances within minutes of his arrival.
The result edges United closer to a place in the last 16 but the manner of their performance is hardly likely to worry Arsenal, whom they face in a do-or-die league clash at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Ruud van Nistelrooy was in the thick of the early action and one tangle with Pavel Pergl, which went unpunished by referee Massimo de Santis could land the Dutchman in hot water with UEFA if they deem the Dutchman intended to swing an arm into the full-back’s face.
Liam Miller was handed his first European start. The former Celtic star has been plagued by injuries since his summer move south but with Cristiano Ronaldo rested after his poor performance at Birmingham last Saturday, Alex Ferguson opted to hand the Irish international the right-midfield berth.
Miller didn’t let Ferguson down on his first start since August 21, though as the first half hour passed, neither keeper had been forced into a meaningful stop.
Kovac was booked when he chopped van Nistelrooy down from behind, but, much to the Dutchman’s frustration, the decision went the other way.
Pergl was left with blood streaming from his nose after van Nistelrooy caught him in the face with his arm.
The incident was not picked up by referee Massimo de Santis, although UEFA will probably review the TV evidence and the striker is sure to be in trouble if they decide there was intent.
United almost broke the deadlock five minutes before the break when Rooney’s shot flicked off Jiri Homola and flew just wide with Jaromir Blazek totally wrong-footed.
The teenager was even closer on the visitors’ next attack after Heinze had reacted quicker than Homola to reach Blazek’s short clearance and present Rooney with a square ball. This time the 20-yard effort flew an inch wide with Blazek again reduced to a watching brief.
Carroll managed to scramble back and save Poborsky’s goalward lob after the two weak punches from the keeper had failed to clear a spirited Sparta attack, then Tomas Sivok produced a woeful effort that barely trundled into the penalty area.
At the other end, Blazek failed to hold a teasing Giggs cross but the Sparta defence responded quickly and bundled the ball clear.
Silvestre upended Sivok close to the United box, although Poborsky’s floated free-kick was a poor one and Carroll collected with ease.
Then Van Nistelrooy allowed Homola to nip in front of him and clear after the prolific striker attempted to control a bouncing ball. United maintained the pressure and John O’Shea stabbed over from eight yards after latching onto Rooney’s cross.
Miller was booked when he barged into Urbanek but the visitors seemed to have gained the initiative and Rooney only just overhit a through ball which Giggs gamely chased with no reward.
Sparta had not had an attack for some time but countered quickly after another United raid had broken down and Tomas Jun found himself clean through after Zelenka had flicked a long ball into the visitors box.
Fortunately for United Carroll was alert to the danger and came out quickly to block Jun’s shot with his legs and keep his side on level terms.
Scholes was booked for a wild kick at Kovac and the first substitution came before play restarted as Michael Meduna replaced Jun.
Ferguson responded by taking Rooney and Giggs off and giving Ronaldo and Louis Saha 12 minutes to win the game.
: Blazek, Pergl, Kovac, Homola, Petras, Poborsky, Sivok, Zelenka, Urbanek, Jun, Vorisek.
: Carroll, Gary Neville, Brown, Silvestre, Heinze, Miller, Scholes, O’Shea, Giggs, Rooney, van Nistelrooy.
: Massimo De Santis (Italy).