Lyon 2 Manchester United 2
Record-breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy dragged Manchester United back from the brink of a Champions League disaster in Lyon.
In only his second appearance of the season, the brilliant Dutchman established himself above Denis Law as the most prolific European goalscorer in United history with a two-goal salvo that rescued a Red Devils side that seemed to be spinning to certain defeat.
Trailing to first-half efforts from Cris and Pierre Frau, van Nistelrooy - assisted by dazzling Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo - dragged his team back into the game in five stunning minutes after the interval.
First Ronaldo dug out a cross that allowed van Nistelrooy to steer a low header past Gregory Coupet, his 29th European goal, one more than the legendary Law.
There were no celebrations from the former PSV man just then. Instead, he waited until Ronaldo’s attempted shot had deflected into his path off Anthony Reveillere, offering the time and space to beat Coupet for a second time.
It was not quite "Barcelona 99" but for a side badly lacking in confidence after a wretched start to the season, it was still a significant achievement and one Alex Ferguson will no doubt hope can be carried into his side’s Premiership campaign.
Loyalty has been always been one of the fundamental traits of Ferguson’s managerial career and the Scot has steadfastly refused to betray the men who have consistently let him down over the past 12 months.
Tim Howard was taken out of the firing line following the monumental last-minute error against Porto that cost United their place in last season’s competition but the American was back in the side long before United lifted the FA Cup in Cardiff last May.
Ferguson’s faith also endured his goalkeeper’s blunder at Bolton on Saturday, with the Scot quick to confirm the former Major League Soccer star would be part of his starting line-up this evening.
When Howard bravely rushed out to block Florent Malouda’s attempt to steer Wiltord’s through-ball into the net midway through the opening period, Ferguson’s selection policy looked to be a wise one. Nine minutes from the interval, it was exposed as pure folly.
Howard could justifiably point to the number of bodies in a crowded penalty area as a partial excuse for his failure to collect Juninho’s long-range free-kick but, given he got a clean hold on the ball before he dropped it straight into Cris’ path, the blame was still firmly his.
It was a goal which would probably have come much earlier had Lyon not continually over-elaborated when they got anywhere near the United box.
United’s creaky rearguard was rocking from the opening minutes, with only Gabriel Heinze looking the part and even he was treading on thin ice after incurring a ninth-minute booking for his clattering foul on Sidney Govou.
In addition to Malouda’s saved effort, Cacapa headed narrowly wide from Juninho’s corner and Frau came close to netting Wiltord’s low cross.
Badly outgunned in midfield, United mustered little in response. A poor Ryan Giggs effort from a Roy Keane cross was the best they could manage.
The second goal was therefore in no way flattering to a Lyon side, although Ferguson might wonder why three of his players stopped immediately in front of the dugout from which he watched unhappily, appealing in vain for a free-kick in favour of Ronaldo as Frau finished off a lightning counter-attack by smashing Wiltord’s square pass beyond a stranded Howard.
As United trooped back down the tunnel with their heads bowed, it seemed another sorry European evening was in store. Instead, through van Nistelrooy, they produced one of those rousing comebacks for which they are so famous.
Even so, there should have been a sting in the tail for the visitors as Nilmar contrived to volley wide from barely a yard with the goal at his mercy before Juninho struck the base of a post with the last kick of the game.