Whatever their long-term prospects without Roy Keane, the immediate future for Manchester United FC promises to be fraught with anxiety after this goalless draw with Villarreal CF left their UEFA Champions League hopes in the balance.
No way through
United risk failing at the group stage for the first time since 1994/95 after their third draw in five Group D matches left them third in the section, frustrated after failing to find a way through a Villarreal defence breached just once in five games.
This was the Old Trafford regulars' first opportunity to respond to the departure of the talismanic Keane and a banner in the West Stand said it all: "Keane 1993-2005 Red Legend". If Keane's departure marked the end of an era then there is no doubting the identity of the player around whom United fans hope the future will be built.
Ruud van Nistelrooij may have worn the captain's armband but it was Wayne Rooney who was at the heart of almost all good things in the first half. Sent off for a flash of petulance during the sides' goalless draw at El Madrigal in September, we got some flashes of brilliance in the opening exchanges.
Rooney threatened three times inside the first five minutes, notably when collecting a Cristiano Ronaldo cross with his back to goal and creating a chance out of nothing. The England forward flicked the ball over his head and spun between Alessio Tacchinardi and Juan Manuel Peña only to be denied a goal by Mariano Barbosa's block. He fired two other shots goalwards, one of them bouncing to safety off his captain following a one-two with Darren Fletcher.
Just after the quarter-hour Rooney - whose repertoire extended to taking corner-kicks - threatened again, exchanging passes with Fletcher but sending a tame lob trickling past the far post. But aside from Rooney, Villarreal contained United effectively, Gonzalo Rodríguez's timely intervention to stop Paul Scholes a prime example.
Villarreal showed little urgency about getting forward but the pity for the visitors was that playmaker Juan Román Riquelme was missing because his replacement, Roger García, was found wanting on two occasions they could have threatened. Roger squandered a glorious chance to release Luciano Figueroa as he raced unmarked down the inside-left channel. Then, with half-time approaching, he shot straight into the defensive wall after Figueroa had gone down on the edge of the box.
Ji-Sung Park's arrival minutes into the second half brought an extra edge to the United attack. He and Rooney combined twice to great effect and on both occasions the Scouser teed up the South Korean only for a defender to make the block. Ronaldo then fired straight at Barbosa on the hour but with United finding some fluency, the game's flow was broken up by a series of stoppages and skirmishes between the two sets of players.
With the second half past its midway point, United had to go for the winner. Ronaldo directed a free header over the crossbar from Wes Brown's cross but this did not provide the cue for a cavalry charge. Instead Villarreal began to come forward and, with the clock ticking down, the Spanish side threatened twice in a minute from Marcos Senna free-kicks.
First he shot into the arms of Edwin van der Sar before swinging in a ball which Figueroa was a whisker away from connecting with. Rooney whistled an effort just over but instead it was Keane's name that resounded round the stadium at the final whistle.