Without setting the world alight, Manchester United proved again how far we have come in Europe over the past few years. Of course, you could argue the two appearances in the last two European Cup finals already have shown that, but it’s results like the one last night in Moscow that do it for me.
Three years ago almost to the day United lost 1-0 in Copenhagen after Ferguson fielded a weakened team. FC Copenhagen hadn’t even scored a Champions League goal before that evening, let alone won a game, yet there we were, losing to them. In the past ten years we’ve lost to Maccabi Haifa, Anderlecht, Stuttgart, Deportivo (more than once), Benfica, Lille, PSV Eindhoven, Fiorentina, Marseille, Porto and Fenerbahce away from home in the Champions League. This year we’ve gone to Turkey and won, but more impressively, to Russia and won, with several first team players missing. Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Patrice Evra have been our best performing players so far this season, and we were without all of them, amongst others.
Nani retained his crown for the most frustrating player going though, with him showing the usual flashes of brilliance before giving the ball away, failing to beat the first man with a cross, or shooting wildly. I want to see the manager keep on persevering though because all it takes in one moment of greatness to change a game. Last night, it was his cross to Dimitar Berbatov, which the Bulgarian headed on to Antonio Valencia, which won us the game.
Berbatov had a frustrating match, which could have been predicted, as the lone striker. Whatever progress we made down the flanks, particularly down the left under the ownership of Fabio and Nani, it was hard to find Berbatov in the box, who was always outnumbered. He isn’t a lone striker because his best position is behind the main striker, holding the ball up and looking for the clever pass. The game was crying out to dump the extra midfielder and bring Michael Owen on but this didn’t happen until the 70th minute. His best chance would have been buried in to the back of the net if he was a couple of inches taller, but as it is, the cross sailed over his head.
At 0-0, Owen played in Nani who had Berbatov and Owen to choose from, but he played it miles behind both of them. Berbatov then got on the ball and took a swing at it with the resulting shot going over the bar, but his frustration was apparent all game. The booking he received just after half time summed up his irritating evening really, given that he had actually been fouled but his over the top fall convinced the referee otherwise. He could be less frustrated three minutes after his off target shot though when Nani got his cross spot on and Berbatov got a CL assist to his name.
It’s two goals in as many games for Valencia now, which is already vindicating the reasons behind buying him. He isn’t going to score 42 goals in a season but he is going to chip in to our goals tally and hopefully the extra confidence gained over the past week will mean he can kick on and add more goals to his game. He hit the woodwork minutes before scoring showing that he is accurate and eager enough to get goals to his name.
United didn’t shut up shop after this goal though. Another lovely move from the lads should have finished with an Anderson goal after Berbatov neatly rolled the ball back to him, but his goal-bound shot was deflected wide of the post.
Defensively, we didn’t have an awful lot to do and Edwin Van der Sar was virtually redundant until his bravery was called upon in the dying moments. Fabio was impressive going forward and will be available as option for the weekend with it being revealed the stretcher off the pitch was just for cramp, apparently. It was his hard work defensively which lead to our goal so credit to him as much as anyone else. Gary Neville also had a good game down the other wing and after getting the assist for Valencia at the weekend, it was his cross that found Nani in the lead up to the goal.
After the game, Neville rightly identified that the league is the priority and another win in Europe will allow the manager to pick a team that puts us in a more favourable position in the Premiership. Wolfsburg and Besiktas drew last night meaning we’re five points clear of any other team. Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand were taken off as a precaution for the weekend, again showing that our league game had to take priority.We should be full strength for the weekend and I really hope we do add to the misery at Anfield, although, it is in our best interest that Rafa isn’t “sacked in the morning” as then they might actually appoint a manager who is capable of winning the league. A simple three points rather than an absolute battering would do me nicely. Let the countdown begin.