It’s hard to terrorise opponents when your attacking trio boasts of an ageing 34-year old whose time, according to his own fans, is up at the club, a Korean imitation of the Energizer Bunny sans the coolness and impact, and a hobbit brought over from Argentina.
Behind them sat 2 defensive midfielders and a player turning 20 this Sunday who had been anonymous in the first leg. Behind them stood a crocked center-back, a green 21-year old, an alien making his comeback from injury, a right-back no one rates as being good enough and a 37-yr old keeper whose best days are behind him.
Either Luciano Spalletti didn’t do his homework, or his scouts lied to him about some of these players.
Manchester United were, in one word, professional. They went at Roma in the first 20 minutes with controlled aggression, creating chances and bursting into the box. Doni and at other points Juan did quite well to keep them out, and eventually Roma got a foot back into the game and began pushing back.
It was around this time that Mancini drove into the box, teased Brown before making a move to go past him to whip in a cross. Brown read it, went in with a tackle, the ball slid away and Mancini took a swan dive that would have made his father proud. Video replays were inconclusive (to this observer’s view at least, even with the red tinted shades on) on whether Brown had caught the foot or the ball first, but Mancini had milked the incident and there was no doubt Brown caught him in the follow-through and the referee whistled for a penalty.
A penalty! After coming so close to scoring (thrice) in the opening 20 minutes, United were about to be cruelly punished. De Rossi stepped up and the commentator harped on about his credentials as a World Cup winner and a successful penalty taker in the 2006 WC final shootout. If you were watching on TV, you’d have given up any hope before the kick was taken, but those in the stadium were still angry at the ref for giving that penalty when De Rossi stepped up and whacked it straight over the bar.
I couldn’t see his face, but I imagine Van der Sar allowing himself a slight smile as De Rossi came close to tears. Old Trafford erupted in joy and some of the United players punched the air – justice had been done.
From then till the end of the first half United were on the back foot, Roma sending wave after wave of attacks and United, with a hobbling Rio Ferdinand centre of the pitch, repelling them each time. Come half-time, and some were expecting Rio Ferdinand to be taken off considering the way he was hobbling.
At one point (around the 40th minute mark) Vucinic went down to a Brown challenge and when the camera panned to Rio Ferdinand’s face you could see the pain etched on it – he was clearly unfit for this game and yet when Ferguson and United and come calling he had answered. Of course, it wasn’t just Ferdinand – Giggs and Park doubled back time and time again to defend, with both players bailing out their respective fullbacks several times.
2nd half started on an even keel, with both sides pushing and creating chances. United had Ronaldo warming up but by the 70th minute he wasn’t needed – another pin-point Hargreaves cross spun in from the right flank, landed on Tevez’s monster forehead and spun off inside the far post. Doni was stranded, United were home 1-0 up, 3-0 on aggregate and through to the semi-finals. Again. It had taken 70 minutes instead of 7, but the goal pretty much killed the game and Ferguson duly brought on O’Shea (Carrick) and Rooney (Giggs) to give his players a rest and also shore up central midfield.
The best was saved for last – Gary Neville made his return after sitting out injured for over an year, and replacing Anderson with a few minutes to go on the clock. His return was as professional and ‘business-as-usual’ as they come – he calmly took his place in central midfield, took the armband Ferdinand handed to him and pulled off a half-decent imitation of Paul Scholes (for a 30+ right-back who’s returning after an year, I’d say it was a half-decent imitation) in the last minutes of the game.
When the whistle came, the United players walked off proud – another mission well-done, another European milestone achieved (11 straight home wins in a row in Europe, a new record), 2 years of dominance in Europe showing their growing maturity at this level and in 2 weeks, Barcelona.
But first, there will be the small matter of playing the Arsenal on Sunday – and with Ronaldo and Rooney scheduled to start that game, there can only be fireworks to look forward to.
EVDS: 6.5 – his usual composed self, didn’t flap at anything and handled the crosses and corners well.
Brown: 6 – The Mancini penalty will give his detractors more ammo but overall he did what he’s capable of doing – a good enough job under difficult conditions. Mancini isn’t as easy as dealing with your average Premier League left-winger, mind you.
Ferdinand: 7.5 – Seeing that he was unfit, it was an excellent display from the central defender.
Pique: 6.5 – Hard to find a fault in his game (judgment will improve with time). Needs to do better when United go up for corners.
Silvestre: 6 – A successful and uneventful (always good with Silvestre) return
Carrick: 6.5 – I thought he did OK, was tidy defensively and didn’t have the usual R-rated duo to aim his passes to.
Anderson: 6 – Better than in Rome.
Hargreaves: 8 – Would have been a 9 if he had scored from one of his many chances. Man of the match, easily.
Giggs: 6 – Some good crosses and tracked back well.
Park: 7 – He gets the extra 0.5 for effort – the man ran himself to the ground. Good squad player to have around, if only he could learn how to shoot.
Tevez: 6.5 – Got the goal but popped in and out of the game – was a bit isolated up top. Made his chance count, which is all you can ask of him.
O’Shea: 5 – Apparently Fergie thought his size would scare the Romans…Had little time to do more than just clean up ahead of Rio.
Rooney: 5.5 – 20 minutes on the pitch but United looked stronger with him on.
Neville: 5 – Welcome back Captain, although I hope you don’t keep Brown out of the team, at least not this season.
Manchester United will travel to Camp Nou on Wednesday, 23rd April 2008 before entertaining Barcelona at Old Trafford on Tuesday, 29th April 2008. Before the first leg there’s the small matter of dispatching Arsenal at home on Sunday and Blackburn away the next Saturday. Oh, and there’s that pesky trip to Stamford Bridge on the 26th. Fun times…
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