Nantes-born writer Jules Verne could not have penned a more thrilling match or exciting climax as Manchester United staged yet another one of their trademark finishes.
The Champions League game had entered the third minute of stoppage time when Mario Yepes handled the ball and Ruud van Nistelrooy fired home the penalty to rescue United.
United deserved their share of the spoils, which keeps them on course for a sixth-successive quarter-final place, after being repeatedly denied by Nantes goalkeeper Mickael Landreau.
However question marks remain over whether Sir Alex Ferguson’s 4-1-4-1 formation in Europe will carry them all the way to glory at Hampden Park in May.
Despite winning 12 of their last 14 games playing 4-4-2, Ferguson reverted to his controversial formation against Nantes and it almost cost him dear.
United’s defensive frailties also returned to haunt them which will also worry Ferguson.
Nantes, who are a lowly 13th in the French First Division, took a surprise lead after just nine minutes in the Stade de la Beaujoire when they scored only their second goal in their last seven Champions League games.
Laurent Blanc deflected a shot to the unmarked Olivier Quint on the left and his drive came off David Beckham and was touched on by Marama Vahirua to former Coventry striker Viorel Moldovan, who scored at the back post.
Suddenly United, who had lost just one of their previous 14 games against French opposition, looked vulnerable and Vahirua barged past Gary Neville and Blanc before unleashing a shot which Fabien Barthez brilliantly turned behind for a corner.
United gathered their senses and were denied an equaliser when Roy Keane fed lone striker van Nistelrooy and his drive hit the post with Landreau beaten.
The Reds kept up the pressure and twice went close in the space of a couple of minutes.
First Sylvain Armand could only head the ball to Beckham on the edge of the six-yard box and his first-time left-foot shot was deflected for a corner.
Beckham then released van Nistelrooy with an exquisite slide-rule pass and the striker outpaced Yepes only for his shot to come off Landreau’s legs and go behind for a corner.
Van Nistelrooy then sparked a flare-up when he caught Landreau late, which resulted in bookings for Keane and Yepes for pushing one another.
At the other end, United’s backline, which had looked so solid recently, was all at sea.
The Canaries might have had a second when the Tahitian Vahirua shot narrowly wide after Moldovan had turned and found him unmarked in the visitors’ box.
The chances continued to come in this free-flowing and open game and just before half-time, Keane should have done better when he blazed over from close range from Juan Sebastian Veron’s free-kick.
Nantes continued to frustrate van Nistelrooy and Landreau denied him with a great stop before Mauro Cetto poked the ball away from the £19million hitman as he prepared to pull the trigger in the box.
Veron then went close when Scholes teed him up on the edge of the area and he flashed a drive across the face of the goal.
That proved to be Veron’s last meaningful contribution and on 63 minutes he was replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has rescued United on so many occasions in the past.
The supersub, as he doesn’t like to be called, nearly did so again within three minutes of coming on when his shot from van Nistelrooy’s pass was parried by Landreau and Mathieu Berson hoofed the loose ball behind.
Landreau’s goal seemed to be charmed and he denied United yet again, this time saving from Giggs.
Barthez was also excelling in the United goal and he made a stunning save from Quint’s drive to keep United’s hopes alive.
Still Landreau kept United at bay and on 87 minutes he made another excellent save to thwart Paul Scholes.
But United refused to give up and their pressure was rewarded three minutes into stoppage time when Yepes handled the ball and was sent off for his second bookable offence and van Nistelrooy rammed the spot-kick home.