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Barcelona 0-0 Manchester United – Much better than last season

Red Rants had some problems in the last 10 hours or so – first our server was under maintenance for a looonnnggg time (they picked one hell of a time to do maintenance), and then there was a problem with our database that didn’t allow people to post comments. Both problems are resolved now, and I thank you for your patience and hope that you haven’t migrated somewhere else in the meantime.

We will be shifting servers in the near future to avoid any such future problems.

Ok, back to the match itself. In case you haven’t seen the game, I suggest finding a place to download it and watch it again, or trying to catch a replay on TV. My hangover prevents me from going play by play over last night’s events, although to the teams’ credit I managed to go through the whole game without sleeping (as opposed to the shit on a stick affair at Anfield when I dozed off 10 minutes into the game). If you’re pressed for time, read the beeb’s report or guardian’s minute-by-minute coverage.

What I DO want to discuss though, is the nature of United’s performance and what that holds for the coming days (both the Chelsea game and the second leg at Old Trafford).

United played quite well for their standards

Remember, we’re not Liverpool or Chelsea – we didn’t have the players in midfield or upfront to hussle and play ‘direct’ football. Some of you might disagree, but comparing United’s performance to Liverpool’s last year would be unfair for two reasons – one, the different styles of play, and two, the fact that Barcelona gave away that game last season with some shocking defending.

Instead, we were on the backfoot throughout, with Barcelona controlling the midfield through possession and their much better use of it. The crowd was a factor as well (in motivating the home side) and I hope United fans heed Fergie’s request to create a special atmosphere in the return leg to urge their team on.

We’re not Arsenal either – our game is usually played on a higher tempo with less emphasis on the short passes (although they’re still there). Arsenal might have done better against Barcelona, but that’s as much to do with psychology (they’ve done well away in Europe in recent years, United haven’t) as with their style of play (remember Villareal away in the 05/06 season? shambles…).

But the most important (and for me, positive) thing is that this side played a lot better against an arguably more dangerous side (in terms of attacking talent across the pitch) than it did last year away in the Champions League semifinals. There’s a lot of talk about how United should win this and play like that but at the end of the day, this was a bunch of kids who’ve shown considerable maturity in standing up to a strong team and come away without being embarrassed. United learned their lessons from last season and it showed in the way priority was given to closing down attacks and defending as a team.

That penalty

The penalty, without a doubt, changed the game. If it had gone in, there was always going to be more goals in it – a score draw or a 2-1 to either side was quite possible then because it would have given United more confidence and given Barcelona the added incentive to go forward and attack.

Ferguson said that perhaps the penalty came too early for United and Ronaldo was caught a bit unprepared. I find that true to an extent – the pressure got to Ronaldo and it might not have gotten to him if the pen had been in, say, the 10th minute. As things were, it was a surreal moment and too good to be true to be given a penalty in the first minute in a Champions League semifinal at the Camp Nou.

Ronaldo missed (for the record I think with his European experience Hargo should have taken it, but hindsight is 20/20 and you’d have bet the house on Ronny scoring from a pen against Barca), and both teams were cautious after that. Barcelona focused more on possession and control than outright attack, and United, aware that they had rustled up a nest of bees, were cautious and focused on nullifying Barcelona’s threat as opposed to doing any serious foraging up front by themselves.

United did have a strong shout for a second penalty around the 29th minute, but that wasn’t given. Can’t say much about that, except that Ronny would have tried again and I’d still bank on him putting that one away. Should we now throw a strop and say we were denied clear-cut scoring chances by a referee? Nah, we’re not going to berate the ref. Unfortunately, this happens when you rely on single individuals to referee high-pressure games where something as obvious as home crowd pressure (not to mention the fact that it’s harder to give a second penalty than it is to give the first one) can influence the ref’s decisions. As Fergie said, you don’t expect to get one penalty at Camp Nou so to get a second there was no chance. At least that’s better put than doubting the integrity of the referee, which surprisingly hasn’t earned Rafa Benitez any fine up till now…

Team selection

Unfortunately Vidic was ill but Wes Brown did a good job as his replacement. Brown is a confidence player and he grew into his added responsibilities yesterday. He’s a great asset to have in the squad with his experience, loyalty and defensive abilities. Sure, he’s not a natural right-back, but of all the center-backs playing at right-back for the top four this season, who’d you back? Exactly…

Ferguson held back Nani and Anderson for the next two games, and when you think about it, this time around we have players we can rely on to freshen things up and still win games for us. Come Stamford Bridge, I would expect at least one of these 2 to get a starting role. Strength in depth, coupled with maturity and experience, gives us a much better chance of progress this season than it did last season.

Park, Scholes and Carrick played an important role in ‘getting the job done’ without making too many mistakes. EVDS put the defence under pressure a bit with a few erratic clearances but was otherwise solid. Hargo had a decent game as well and hopefully he’ll be in midfield for the return leg alongside Anderson to provide the team with some added bite. It was also interesting to see United play Rooney on the wing because it was a testament to Fergie’s flexibility and that of his players as well. How many strikers do you know who, despite being first-choice for their team, will willingly take on a defensive role in midfield?

Looking forward

It’s Stamford Bridge and then back to Old Trafford for the next 2 parts of the ‘most important time of our season’. We could lose against Chelsea and still win the Premier League, but because of the lack of an away goal we now need to beat Barcelona at OT.

And if we can beat Real Madrid 4-3, and AC Milan 3-2 – I see no reason why United can’t win again against top European opposition at the Theatre of Dreams. We’re good enough to win the next two games, and at the very least I think we’ll pick up a point at Stamford Bridge and progress to the Champions League final to play … Chelsea … in Moscow.

Over to you.