Thursday 22 February 2018

Fergie's second string fall flat

Manchester Utd 0
Rangers 0

Rangers' Steven Naismith falls as Wayne Rooney challenges him for the ball at Old Trafford last night. Photo: PA
Rangers' Steven Naismith falls as Wayne Rooney challenges him for the ball at Old Trafford last night. Photo: PA

Henry Winter

Rangers deservedly held the strangers at Old Trafford last night as Alex Ferguson paid for thinking he could beat the Scottish champions with a depleted side, seeming to misread the fixture list and sending out next week's Carling Cup XI for this Champions League challenge.

Manchester United can doubtless make up the points and qualify from Group C but this was a painful, embarrassing false start.

Showing 10 changes, United lacked cohesion, understanding and a cutting edge and simply could not find a way past such determined, well-organised visitors. Walter Smith, whose tactics were cloaked with caution, outwitted his old mentor. Maurice Edu was outstanding in central midfield while David Weir marshalled the five-man defence.

Compounding United's frustration was the awful ankle injury sustained by Antonio Valencia. United need their major stars back for their next assignment in the Premier League, Liverpool on Sunday, and then Valencia away in Europe.

Champions League competition rules prohibit "weakened'' teams, and United had been nowhere near full strength with Nemanja Vidic, Dimitar Berbatov, Paul Scholes and Nani not even on the bench. Yet Uefa's promotion of a 25-man squad list effectively undermined any "weakened'' clause. Ferguson simply selected from his resources.

Ferguson had faith in his youngsters, in defenders like Chris Smalling and Fabio, midfielders like Darron Gibson and, particularly, in attackers like Javier Hernandez. The Mexican was typically busy, showing a magnificent leap in meeting Fabio's cross. Hernandez was working alongside Rooney, who kept dropping deep looking for the ball, seeking to escape blue shirts.


In a lacklustre first period, Rooney struggled to impose himself. Rooney's most promising moment came when he exchanged passes with Hernandez and sprinted into the box. Rather than shooting, the striker decided to be selfless and square the ball to Hernandez.

Old Trafford sighed as Rooney's pass was picked off.

Frustration reigned. United appealed vainly for a penalty when the ball hit Weir. None of the six officials saw anything wrong. They would have done well to see through the thick blue line. Smith's tactics had been simple, one that he uses in Europe, throwing a blanket across midfield and defence.

Rangers' 5-4-1 system saw Kenny Miller as the lone striker, so distant from his team-mates at his times that he was almost in a different postcode. On the rare occasions that Rangers did venture into the final third, United seemed strangely slow in shifting through the gears on regaining possession.

With Weir and company caught upfield following a Rangers free-kick, United had a glorious chance midway through the first half to break quickly.

Hernandez and Valencia were off and running, praying that the ball came early but Tomasz Kuszczak was sluggish in releasing and Rangers were able to re-form the barricades.

United had the ball for long periods but Rangers were too organised, too dogged. United eked out a few chances. Hernandez lifted in a cross from the right which seemed destined for Darren Fletcher until Madjid Bougherra snaked out a leg to intercept.

United tried shooting from range. Valencia had an effort blocked. Gibson, set up by Fletcher, let fly, the ball arrowing fractionally wide of Allan McGregor's left-hand upright. Gibson clearly fancied his chances, unleashing another fruitless shot.

Rangers' work rate was admirable. Bougherra, Weir and Sasa Papac were three sentries in the centre of defence. Lee McCulloch patrolled in front of the back five, throwing himself into tackles and barking out orders.

Rooney roamed deeper and deeper searching possession, alarming all United fans when turning his left ankle in trying to close down Steven Davis. He looked in some discomfort, eschewing involvement for a few minutes before easing his way back in to the game. Ferdinand, the one positive for United in the first period, gave the bench a thumbs up, indicating Rooney could continue.

An uninspiring first half ended with real pedantry from the officials. The sixth official felt that McGregor was time-wasting and signalled to Olegario Benquerenca, who promptly cautioned the Rangers 'keeper. The visitors shook their head in disbelief as McGregor had only just collected the ball.

Yet Rangers turned around buoyed by their resilience and the scoreline.

United probed after the break, Gibson connecting with a meaty volley over.

Then came that awful injury to Valencia. He was sprinting down the right, trying to elude Kirk Broadfoot, who slid in with a completely fair challenge. Poor Valencia. His left ankle gave way, and his distressed reaction said it all. So did that of the Rangers players, instantly shouting for a stretcher. Broadfoot, utterly blameless, looked on in anguish as the medics gave Valencia oxygen and hurried him to hospital.

As sympathetic applause followed Valencia out of the stadium, Ryan Giggs darted on. Still Rangers held firm. Still murmurs of concern rippled through the home fans. The visitors were loving it, particularly as frustration seeped into United players. Rooney was particularly fortunate not to be cautioned for pulling over the excellent Edu.

With 15 minutes remaining, Ferguson sent on Michael Owen for the anonymous Park Ji-sung and Jonny Evans for Fabio at left-back. United were now 4-2-4 with Owen and Rooney flanked by Hernandez and Giggs. Rooney almost forced the breakthrough with a chip that McGregor just caught. Then Fletcher beat the offside trap, racing on to Giggs's lofted pass, only to be thwarted by a marvellous sliding block from Bougherra, embodying Rangers' resistance movement.

When the sixth official signalled six minutes, accounting for the Valencia injury, a huge roar went up from the Stretford End. But soon all you could hear were the Rangers fans. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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