Saturday 20 January 2018

Fergie's gamble fails to pay off

4-4 on agg, Bayern win on away goals

Henry Winter

AND then there were none. The total eclipse of the English in the Champions League was finally guaranteed by Arjen Robben, a man from the home of total football.

The Dutchman's majestic volley, a strike of sublime technique and vision, gave Bayern Munich the precious second away goal that sent Manchester United the chastened way of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.

United will be kicking themselves. Leading 3-0 shortly before half-time through goals from Darron Gibson and the brilliant Nani twice, smooth passage to the semi-finals seemed assured but Wayne Rooney was limping, the pain flooding back into a weak, strapped-up ankle, question marks rising about Alex Ferguson's decision in English minds, and then Ivica Olic poached a goal to give Bayern hope.

United made life hard for themselves when Rafael departed for his second bookable offence, and then Rooney hobbled away. Nani tried hard but that goal from Robben, formerly of Chelsea and once a target of Ferguson, left United with only the Premier League to concentrate on.

As the European light faded, it became vividly clear how reliant United are on Rooney, explaining the gamble to start him. Dimitar Berbatov ambled on in the second half but it was Nani who threatened most. Ferguson has work to do in the summer, not least in strengthening his attacking options.

Even before United's astonishing opening salvoes in the first seven minutes, the Rooney factor was felt, Bayern's players staring at him in the tunnel with Thomas Muller, in particular, unable to take his eyes off the unexpected figure. Rooney lasted only 55 minutes before hobbling away, his ankle clearly paining him.

Ferguson's reaction to the defeat by Chelsea had been brutal, Berbatov, Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville all dropped. If Rooney's return to the starting blocks after only eight days out injured was the real surprise, Gibson's presence on the right of a tight central midfield in a 4-3-3 system also shifted more eyebrows towards the heavens.

On an extraordinary evening, Old Trafford was soon singing Gibson's praises, drowning out the Bayern contingent's chant of "who the f*** are Man United''. They soon found out. The start showcased the English champions at their fluent attacking best, the journey towards their first goal begun by the tigerish Rafael, who turned Franck Ribery brilliantly, doing to Bayern's No7 what the French international had done to Neville last week.


Rafael was off and running, speeding away from Ribery and immediately spotting that Rooney had dropped off Martin Demichelis and Daniel van Buyten.

The hot-headed young Brazilian, whose immaturity led to his eventual expulsion, was parading his positive qualities here, hitting Rooney with a firm pass and the Englishman's response showed why United were so delighted to have him back in the red-and-white ranks, however briefly.

Rooney cushioned the ball into the path of Gibson, who needs little urging to shoot from range. Taking the ball on a couple of steps, holding off Bastian Schweinsteiger, Gibson let fly from 20 yards, using Demichelis to block Hans-Jorg Butt's view. Bayern's 'keeper looked startled when Gibson's shot appeared out of nowhere, speeding into the net.

Lightning struck twice. Perhaps all of Ferguson's words about poor use of possession after scoring early in the Allianz Arena had been absorbed.

United kept up their high tempo, pouring forward towards Bayern's creaking defence.

Rooney again played an influential part, lifting a high ball out to the right to Antonio Valencia, who had realised that Bayern's nervous, inexperienced left-back, Holger Badstuber, was there for the taking.

Valencia toyed with Badstuber, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, utterly bemusing the poor defender before suddenly drilling the ball hard and low into the box. Nani, timing his arrival perfectly, met the ball with a magnificent flick, sending it flashing past a stunned Butt.

The Bavarians' defence was as co-ordinated as the Oktoberfest at chucking-out time. United should really have scored through Rafael with 10 minutes remaining of a compelling first half. Rafael suddenly broke forward, laying the ball off to Rooney and keeping going. Rooney found Gibson, whose first-time pass clipped Demichelis en route to Rafael, who was breaking into clear water.

On the Brazilian sprinted, support appearing fast from Rooney and Nani but Rafael chose to got it alone, powering his shot wide to the immense frustration of Rooney in particular. No matter. United's third swiftly arrived, the move triggered by Rafael's throw down the right past Demichelis, the centre-half now hopelessly out of position. Valencia humiliated Badstuber again, creating a yard of space and then sweeping the ball across. Obsessed with Rooney, Bayern ignored Nani, who met the ball emphatically, driving it into the roof of the net.

At 3-0, life looked good for United but there were tense times ahead. Bayern had already given notice of their threat, Van der Sar saving athletically from Robben and then stoutly from Olic. Louis van Gaal's side were beginning to put some attacks together, partially assisted by United's commitment to pushing on, most notably Rafael, whose evening was soon to come to such an ignominious end.

The right-back was out of position when Bayern came calling just before the break. Muller's header dropped towards Michael Carrick, who slipped, giving Olic his chance of beating Van der Sar at the second attempt.

The tie was now on a knife-edge, United knowing that another Bayern goal would echo the Germans' feat against Fiorentina, home hopes tempered when Rooney departed. Amazingly, the England striker had appeared for the second half, despite having exacerbated his ankle problem after falling awkwardly when challenging Van Buyten. Before the half closed, Bayern's tall centre-half had deliberately targeted Rooney's ankle.


Ten minutes after the restart, Rooney limped away, bringing on John O'Shea, who slotted into the right-back berth just vacated by the dismissed Rafael.

Already cautioned for a stupid kick at Mark van Bommel, Rafael had twice attempted to drag Ribery back, receiving a second yellow for which he could have no complaint.

Bayern scented hope. Ribery was increasingly influential, running constantly at United, testing Van der Sar's reflexes with a strong volley the Dutchman punched clear. Then Philipp Lahm lifted in a cross that Mario Gomez headed fractionally over.

Here was a test for United, and they resisted the storm for a while but Bayern's second away goal arrived after 72 minutes and it was a sensational strike. Ribery, taking a corner on the left, looked at the near post, perhaps deceiving United's defence. Ribery swept the ball far and long, to Robben on the edge of the area and the Dutchman's magnificent volley hurtled past the diving Carrick and Van der Sar.

Ferguson had to gamble, removing Carrick and sending on Berbatov to partner the outstanding Nani up front. Then came Giggs for Gibson.

As the final whistle sounded, United's dream of reaching a third successive final dissolved. Rarely can a victory have felt such a total failure. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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