From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.16 :: Apr. 18, 2009
Carlos Tevez (right) of Manchester United celebrates his goal with team-mate Wayne Rooney in the Champions League quarterfinal first leg match against FC Porto.
An 89th-minute equaliser horrified Old Trafford when it seemed Manchester United had fought back to win. The deeper distress lies in the knowledge that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is wavering at the critical phase of the season.
The Champions League holders now face a challenge fit for a club with grand ambitions.
Porto have never been beaten at home by an English club in European competition and it looks likely that a win at the Dragao Stadium will be necessary for United. On this evidence they are in no shape to pull off such a feat. Indeed, a draw barely did justice to visitors who were sharper, livelier and superior in all aspects.
United, beginning with a 4-3-3 formation to mirror the visitors, were always scrambling. The tactics had to be redrawn, with Cristiano Ronaldo sited just off a lone central striker, Wayne Rooney, for most of the second half. It was improvisation rather than strategy that saw the team sneak into an unmerited 2-1 lead after 85 minutes.
The effrontery was at least slick. One substitute, Gary Neville, took a throw-in and, following a back heel from Rooney, another, Carlos Tevez, swept the ball high into the net. That did not galvanise a slipshod United to keep Jesualdo Ferreira’s team at bay.
Four minutes later the dependably dangerous Lucho stroked a low cross from the right and Mariano, at the far post, was composed as he beat the advancing Edwin van der Sar. No one in Porto’s ranks lacked nerve. A wearying United suffered as they panted and strove to deal with visitors in fine fettle.
Ferguson, a realist, introduced what was in effect the very British 4-4-2 formation following the interval. That decision to open up the game threw down a challenge but the opposition were more than equal to it.
Beforehand minds had drifted back to Jose Mourinho’s success in knocking out United here in 2004 but the contemporary Porto are more than a tribute band version of his ensemble.
It was the home side who were entirely out of tune. Porto’s followers had told everyone who would listen that the 4-0 trouncing at Arsenal in the group phase was a low point in this campaign that gave a wholly false impression of the side’s quality.
They have undoubtedly set the record straight. The conviction and craft were shown within moments of kick-off. Ferguson had the right to point out that this display came a mere two days after a taxing 3-2 victory over Villa but he knows that is far from being the sole factor.
Porto never allowed United a moment to collect themselves. The visitors had called for a fine save by Van der Sar from a Lucho drive even before they opened the scoring. Ronaldo, misdirecting a pass deep in his own half, then extended the invitation to a goal in the fourth minute.
Lucho’s delivery from the right should have been dealt with by Jonny Evans, who was appearing in the absence of the injured Rio Ferdinand, but he knocked the ball into the path of Cristian Rodriguez. The attacker finished with a low and precise drive.
When United levelled at the quarter-hour, they did so by punishing casual play. The centre-half Bruno Alves did not look up and so knocked a pass-back direct to Rooney, who exploited the opening with care.
Porto, undistracted, went on being superior. Rodriguez headed too close to Van der Sar and then Lisandro could not quite meet a low ball from Rolando. All the acclaim for Federico Macheda’s stoppage time winner for United over Villa was natural but it served the club in other respects.
A mood-enhancing effect was proclaimed by Ferguson. His purpose was to make the squad take his word for it that they would be renewed. That positive attitude did not survive first contact with the opposition. And yet it had looked as if there were sources of renewal.
The manager, for instance, could also recall those who had been serving domestic suspensions, such as Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes and Rooney. It did not suffice. The names on the shirts were no longer so resonant when bodies and minds sagged.
Visitors to this stadium usually enjoy and appreciate half-time for the respite it brings but here it must have been United who relished a pause in which they could regroup. They re-emerged with an instruction to try to force the issue.
Such directness is a little old-fashioned but it had some impact and United’s confidence was lifted temporarily. Rooney showed that with a bold chip that Helton tipped to safety and the goalkeeper then made a good save from the Vidic header that followed a corner. All the same this was more a salvaging of pride than an onslaught.
Porto recovered their poise. When they threatened once more in the 69th minute, the deflection off Evans must have helped Van der Sar deal with Lisandro’s effort. United have given the impression that they are masters of their own fate but suddenly they are underdogs hoping for luck in the next leg.
THE RESULTSQUARTERFINALS - 1ST LEG
Barcelona 4 (Messi 9 & 38, Eto'o 12, Henry 43) bt
Bayern Munich 0. Half-time: 4-0; Liverpool 1 (Torres 6) lost to Chelsea 3 (Ivanovic 39 & 62, Drogba 67).
Half-time: 1-1; Manchester United 2 (Rooney 15, Tevez 85) drew with FC Porto 2 (Rodriguez 4, Gonzalez 89).
Half-time: 1-1; Villarreal 1 (Senna 10) drew with Arsenal 1 (Adebayor 66). Half-time: 1-0.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009
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