Manchester United's progress to the knockout stages was stalled on a night of sub-zero temperatures and substandard performances. Sir Alex Ferguson's team are still almost assured of joining Liverpool and Chelsea in the next phase but he is entitled to be seriously disappointed by the shortcomings that were exposed in losing to such ordinary opponents.

Marcus Allback, a striker who managed only six goals in two years at Aston Villa, stabbed in the decisive goal 73 minutes into a galling evening for England's biggest club, one that ruined their immaculate record in Group F. The Premiership leaders were desperately short of their best form, lacking any creativity or penetration. Copenhagen were willing opponents, yet limited ones, and it does not reflect well on United's long-term chances when considering the greater calibre of teams who will need to be vanquished later in the competition.

Those thoughts will have been on Ferguson's mind on the flight home to Manchester last night, as well as taking the gloss off his 20th-anniversary commemorations over the next week. But he will know the damage should be only superficial and that United were undoubtedly hindered by the absence of key players.

Ferguson was justified, too, in complaining about the effects of a Bruce Springsteen concert last weekend on the pitch. Large expanses of the turf had been so badly trampled as to destroy any grass and expose the mud. Downpours throughout the afternoon, and even the odd blizzard, had exacerbated the problem and there were areas so rutted and non-conducive to professional football it was like playing marbles on cobblestones.

"The pitch was very difficult and that's why it was the game it was," said Ferguson. "There wasn't a lot of football. It wasn't an easy pitch and it took us 20 minutes just to get any rhythm."

In the circumstances it was unreasonable to expect United to reproduce the exhilarating one-touch passing and movement seen at Bolton on Saturday, but Ferguson was surely stretching the truth when he said United had been "in control of the match" and insisted he was happy with the number of chances they created. It was a classic Ferguson ploy of protecting his players from public criticism and he followed it with several disparaging remarks about Copenhagen, effectively portraying their tactics as no more refined than the 80s Wimbledon and sniping that "what football there was came from us".

Ferguson rarely admits mistakes in public but, privately, he may feel compelled to consider his own team selection, most notably the absence of Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes. With Ryan Giggs, Louis Saha and Gary Neville injured, he selected only five who can realistically consider themselves mandatory first-team picks and, perhaps inevitably, there were long spells when the team struggled to replicate their highest levels of cohesion and fluency. In all the tributes to Ferguson over the coming days, his admirers may have to overlook the overconfidence he showed in making six changes from his victorious side at the weekend.

With a stronger team United could have taken an early grip on the game. Instead they flickered only sporadically. Wayne Rooney huffed and puffed but to little effect, Cristiano Ronaldo was strangely peripheral and the same could be said of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who eventually left the pitch with a hamstring strain.

An injury to Nemanja Vidic completed a hugely disappointing night. Michael Carrick's passing was safe rather than incisive and John O'Shea again looked conspicuously short of what it takes to be a central midfielder at the highest level. With Darren Fletcher slowly winning over his detractors, O'Shea is in danger of becoming the player the United fans fret about the most. He squandered their most inviting opportunity, 10 minutes after the interval, and it was to be a costly miss.

Edwin van der Sar, the fifth United player to be captain this season, was largely untroubled in the first three- quarters of the game. On their return from injury Gabriel Heinze and Mikaël Silvestre generally coped well and Allback's decisive contribution was an unexpected twist.

Heinze, in particular, will wince when he sees the replays, having failed to clear as Atiba Hutchinson headed down a left-wing cross for Allback inside the six-yard area. Not one United player in a congested penalty area reacted in time and Allback poked the ball past the hopelessly exposed Van der Sar. "It was a bad goal for us to lose because we knew their danger was from set pieces," Ferguson said. "Until then our defending had been very good and they had never looked like scoring."

Scholes, a substitute, had a late chance to salvage a draw but the goalkeeper Jesper Christiansen charged down his attempted lob. Then Ronaldo turned in Rooney's stoppage-time cross only for the effort to be disallowed because he was offside. The linesman's flag means United's qualification will have to wait until, at least, the visit to Celtic in 19 days. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds