Ragged Reds rescued by Van Persie
CFR CLUJ 1
MAN UTD 2
At the King Matthias statue in the main square here, a tinny version of the song about the visitors had blared out on a continuous loop. "Strong in defence, united in attack, United are the greatest football team..."
The English team fulfilled that prophecy only in parts last night, though happily for their manager the immediate benefits of an attacking partnership to die for masked a dysfunctional defence which looked anything but strong.
The combination of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, which produced the two goals that leave United now requiring only four points from their double-header with Braga to progress, suggests that the two will prosper richly together -- and perhaps in a way which will return the Englishman to the provider he once was for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Seven goals in as many starts for the Dutch beneficiary of Rooney's hard night's work in the deep also suggest that the arguments about resale values of 29-year-olds are redundant sometimes. The defence is something else though, and something Shola Ameobi and Papiss Cisse will believe they can profit from on Tyneside on Sunday.
The occasion alone seemed to represent an achievement for Cluj, who treasured their goalless draw here with Chelsea four years ago so much that the signed match ball still takes pride of place in their trophy cabinet. Transylvanian Bram Stoker country this might be, but Cluj's captain, Cadu, had rated their chance of victory at 10pc on Monday, which wasn't too spine-chilling. Ferguson even got a mention, and applause, when the stadium announcer read out the teams.
Ferguson wasn't sufficiently overwhelmed by his side's defensive weaknesses -- "serious problems in the defensive compartment," as one Romanian journalist described them in the Cluj manager Ioan Andone's pre-match press conference -- as to change the back four whose capitulation to Tottenham had left him in such a black dog mood all week. The six changes from Spurs were all in front of defence, including the appetising prospect of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in the same starting line, Javier Hernandez making three in the striking department.
That meant Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra were asked to make up in width what that line-up, without a wing player, lacked.
But Saturday's defensive frailties were soon in evidence again. Rio Ferdinand, Evra and Rafael were all offenders -- Ferdinand's poor control forcing him to concede a hasty early corner, which skimmed off the top of Darren Fletcher's head, narrowly wide. Rafael's failure to collect a ball comfortably within his ambit caused more trouble and then came the latest manifestation of what has been the sad unravelling of Evra as a top-class defender over the past two years.
Losing touch with a jet-propelled Gareth Bale is one thing but allowing the 27-year-old Senegalese Modou Sougou to leave you for dead is another matter. This was the Romanians' first meaningful attack but United were paralysed in that moment, when Sougou seized on the fine 30-yard crossfield pass which Rafael Bastos sent over, raced away and swept in a ball which the Greek striker Pantelis Kapetanos was granted far too much space to slot home, first time.
David de Gea's less-than-dominant presence didn't help the confusion as the low ball was whipped in -- no one wanted to claim it. "We need to start well. A bad one would be a disaster," Ferguson had said before the game. Falling behind for the sixth time in nine games this season was just the kind of outcome he had pledged "wouldn't happen again".
Evra's evening was saved by Sougou's departure with a hamstring injury after 23 minutes, a hugely fortunate turn of events which made the Romanians sit deep against a United narrow formation which struggled to find a way through and was not set up to play to their strengths. Hernandez operates best off a defender's shoulder, not back to goal. There was nothing of quality from the flanks.
Only when Hernandez was fouled on the left of the Romanians' area by Bastos did Rooney lift up a free-kick in the direction of Van Persie -- and watched it loop off the Dutchman's shoulder over Mario Felgueiras and into the net for United's 29th-minute equaliser.
Ferguson's puce face telegraphed his feelings when he marched across the field at half-time. "A shocker. An absolute shocker," is how he described the way that Evra and Jonny Evans lost their men for the goal, though the sight of Evans departing 10 minutes from time, seemingly limping, was another omen for Sunday.
It was just a mercy that the two members of his new strike partnership proved so immediately intuitive. The second half was only four minutes old when it delivered again, Rooney lifting a ball from wide on the right flank which Van Persie allowed across his body before this time tipping it in off his ankle.
Rooney slid in a low cross from the left which almost delivered Van Persie a hat-trick in the last half-hour and Evra looked to have been bundled over in the area by Cadu. But with De Gea diving to claw away Gabriel Muresan's diving header right at the end, Ferguson was happy just to escape with what he'd got. (© Independent News Service)