New low as United suffer their worst night in Europe
Midtjylland 2 Manchester Utd 1
Sitting in freezing conditions in a tiny stadium in a small town in Denmark, watching a team that had not played a competitive game in more than two months totally outplay the self-styled "biggest club in the world" and paying £71 for the experience.
It is hard to imagine a worse night in Manchester United's European history.
They may reverse the result in the second leg at Old Trafford but it will be a long time before the memory of Midtjylland is washed away. It was not just a low, it was rock bottom.
At the end, three-quarters of the stadium stood and embraced - the Danish crowd had been given their money's worth and plenty more besides. But for the brilliance of goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who had been drafted in as a late replacement once David de Gea had injured himself in the warm-up, Manchester United would have conceded four, possibly five and the talk of regaining the Champions League by winning the Europa League would have been stubbed out before it had properly begun.
Yes, Louis van Gaal does have a whole team injured - De Gea was the 13th of his footballers to be forced to the treatment room - but if Manchester United are true to their boast of being the biggest club in the world, then they should cope.
If the manager of Real Madrid oversaw a performance of this ineptitude on a stage that small, he would be sacked on the spot. These days, United are only big in terms of the vast revenues they rake in. On the pitch, they are bankrupt.
They had only one hero and he was an unlikely one. This was Romero's first game for United since the defeat by Middlesbrough in the League Cup in October, another of the big marker-posts in a season of decline.
This was not a new experience; he had kept goal for Argentina in the World Cup final despite being essentially Monaco's reserve goalkeeper. Romero has the supreme ability to switch on to a game however long he has been on the sidelines, a gift Ole Gunnar Solskjaer possessed in United's pomp.
And yet United were facing a team that specialises in set-pieces, that are drilled and studied in a "set-piece lounge" by assistant manager Brian Priske, who once played for Portsmouth under Harry Redknapp. The United fans who arrived here in Herning in their busloads, setting up camp outside the Irish bars, with their banners from Clay Cross and Ashton under Lyne, would have felt safer with De Gea. Instead, Midtjylland's goals came from play that from a defensive point of view was laughably open and they watched Romero deny two certain goals that would have turned the night into a rout.
The first set-piece was a long throw which scuttled through the United box like a mouse scurrying along a kitchen floor. But much more danger was to come. Filip Novak's corner was met by Kian Hansen's powerful downward header and Romero, falling backwards, palmed it away with one hand. It would have been a superb save at any stage of any match. At this early stage of the tie and with United in such a fragile condition, Romero's was a priceless intervention.
A moment before Memphis Depay put United ahead, came another. United, who had poured forward, left themselves so exposed that Vaclav Kadlec, vainly pursued by Paddy McNair, could either pass to set up a certain goal or shoot. Kadlec shot, not very well, and Romero made the save.
Moments later, United had the lead, which they would soon lose, and an away goal, which they would not. Jesse Lingard and Depay had troubled the Danes with their pace, and now Lingard delivered a low cross that the Dutchman, falling as he made to shoot, did not connect with cleanly. His touch was, however, good enough to send the ball past Mikkel Andersen in the Midtjylland goal.
It was a piece of luck in a season from which fortune has been largely absent but it was not to hold. Michael Carrick gave the ball away and Pione Sisto pounced. Midtjylland are not just big on dead balls they are big on Moneyball, the system of financing a club by buying players cheap and selling them on.
Midtjylland have already rejected offers of around £5m from Ajax for the 21-year-old, whose parents came to Denmark with their nine children fleeing civil war in Uganda when he was just six months old. Arsenal are among the clubs monitoring his progress.
Any scout would have admired the way Sisto exploited Carrick's error. As he ran alongside the 18-yard line, space opened in front of him and Sisto drove home a powerful shot that gave Romero not the slightest chance.
Paul Onuachu, like Sisto, is 21 but came to Denmark from Nigeria rather than Uganda. Standing 6ft 7in tall, he possesses the build of a basketball player and now he used his height to send a cross towards the top corner of Romero's net. Somehow, it was pushed away.
He was not to be denied for long. Midtjylland's second goal was very similar to their first but it was Onuachu who exploited a mistake, this time from Juan Mata, which was just about the first time anyone noticed he was on the pitch. Once more United's defence showed too much space to a striker and were rewarded by the swish of ball striking net.
The little stadium erupted in ululations. Midtjylland's symbol is the Jutland wolf and the Tannoy played the sounds of howling as Onuachu slid to the ground crossing himself. Most Manchester United fans, contemplating the remaining dregs of the season, would want to make similar appeals to the almighty. (© Independent News Service)