When the draw was made for the quarter-finals of this season’s Champions League, few neutrals gave Manchester United a chance against reigning European champions Bayern Munich.
Here was a side who always scored – and usually a lot more than once – possessing some of the best footballers in the modern era and with a manager who had somehow made them even better than they were in the glorious treble-winning season under Jupp Heynckes.
But however disappointed United fans have been with the season to date, all but the most pessimistic would have known that the spirit of the side was not lost, that they had it within themselves to inspire another glorious European night at Old Trafford.
In the end victory was beyond them, and Bayern – in the first-half in particular – dominated play in the fashion of Guardiola’s Barcelona in their pomp. But as the game wore on, there was a belief inside the Theatre of Dreams that United could actually win this, that Bayern’s less-than-convincing central defensive partnership was there to be exploited.
A 1-1 draw still sees the Bundesliga champions with the advantage, with David Moyes’ side needing to score at least once to go through. But suddenly a lost-cause seems anything but, and the second-leg on April 9 could be the match that redefines the United boss’s first season in charge.
Speaking after the match, the Bayern players remained professional and upbeat.
“We have to finish the job next week,” Arjen Robben said in quotes published on Bayern’s official Instagram page.
But while the flying Dutchman focused on what his side needed to do, his teammate Toni Kroos praised the opposition for what was a mightily impressive team performance at a home that has too often given them leaden feet this season.
“It was a tough game,” Kroos said. “We dominated the match but Man United gave their all and they were dangerous.”
They will be dangerous again next week, but so will a wounded German giant. And what looked like being a cake-walk could become one of the most enticing matches of the season.