Month November 2010

Month November 2010

The striking penny drops

November 30, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 7 comments

Two misleading assumptions in football surround Manchester United’s strike pairing Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney; assumptions that have grown despite evidence to the contrary. Yet, something happened at the weekend that hadn’t before – the pair took to the Old Trafford field ostensibly in their ‘correct’ positions.

The widely held – arguably false – view that Berbatov’s role is principally ‘in the hole’ was reinforced last season by Rooney’s transformation to a central striker. There is no little irony in neither striker playing these roles at international level.

Those familiar with this site’s regular podcast, Rant Cast, will recognise this oft-used refrain.

Indeed, Berbatov had led Bulgaria’s attack – until retirement this past summer – and scored 48 goals in 77 internationals as a central striker. The Bulgarian was largely deployed as a conventional striker, albeit one with an outstanding first touch and unsurpassed awareness of space in the box, in two successful seasons at Tottenham Hotspur, with Robbie Keane given license to roam, and before that at Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen.

Not until the 29-year-old’s arrival at Old Trafford did Berbatov more consistently operate in a deeper position, one that Sir Alex Ferguson admitted was the wrong one in the summer of 2009 after a frustrating opening season for the club.

“We were a bit unfair to him last season because we asked him to play too deep,” admitted Ferguson in August 2009.

“We thought that suited him but we were wrong. We realise now he is at his best in the final third of the pitch, where he’s a real threat. We know how to use him this season and he won’t change from that.”

It proved a false dawn for the six-times Bulgarian Player of the Year. Throughout the last season’s campaign, with Rooney often preferred as a lone striker in a 451 formation, Ferguson failed to correct the problem he had already identified, deploying Berbatov sporadically, or in roles not suited to the Bulgarian – deeper when paired with Rooney, or as a lone-forward when not.

Meanwhile, Rooney made his name and continues to thrive for England in a far deeper role than he has ever played for United. The former Evertonian’s flexibility, vision and excellent technique have always lent themselves to the role he now occupies for Fabio Capello, around 15 yards deeper than a ‘number nine’ – Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch, or Jermain Defoe.

Recalling the precocious forward’s debut, aged 17, against Australia followed by a stunning display against Turkey in a Euro2004 qualifier, it was clear from a very young age that Rooney operated with a mature view of the pitch and play around him. It is tempting to suggest that only in England would Rooney’s skills have been harnessed as a lone-striker.

Yet, it is to Rooney’s credit and range of skills that he so seamlessly migrated into the ‘number nine’ role that brought a tally of 34 goals in all competitions last season. But for a serious ankle injury against Bayern Munich, Rooney may even have reached the 40 goal tally achieved previously by Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo in the modern era.

On Saturday, Rooney produced his best performance in a United shirt for eight months, noticeably dropping deeper than Berbatov, producing a series of stunning cross-field passes and linking smoothly with his partner. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian plundered his biggest goal haul in a single game during his time in England.

Coincidence? Probably not.

Source: ESPN

Source: ESPN

Tactics are not as simple as heat maps and chalkboards of course and Berbatov’s tendency to roam is still evident (above) and he is unlikely to become a van Nistelrooy-esque goalhanger any time soon. But intuitively, Rooney’s role on Saturday was very specifically deeper than his colleague’s – it paid handsome dividends for both men.

Ferguson’s reluctance to countenance deploying Rooney ‘in the hole’ behind Berbatov as United’s ‘number nine’ is understandable though. Berbatov has not proven himself a reliable finisher – Rooney has – while the Bulgarian’s relative lack of pace is often not thought conducive to playing on the should of the last defender.

Berbatov’s creative eye is also misleading. While the Bulgarian often tops the charts for creating the most goal-scoring chances, it is in and around the box that his technique really counts, not when dropping back towards the half-way line.

On the other hand Rooney, as England discovered during an excellent World Cup qualifying programme – if not tournament itself – thrives in the deeper role.

The question now is whether Blackburn represents a one-off or a permanent change in tack from United’s management.

Kids face Hammers test

November 30, 2010 Tags: , Matches 167 comments

Manchester United’s second string travel to Upton Park this evening in the continuing quest to win a third Carling Cup in a row. Sir Alex Ferguson’s youth and fringe players will be offered another chance to shine, with momentum also key after United’s thumping 7-1 win over Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford last weekend.

However, Ferguson could make 11 changes to the side that beat Rovers, with ‘keeper Ben Amos set to start and Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Javier Hernández almost certainly involved.

“It would be great to win it three times in a row. The League Cup has become an interesting trophy now,” said Ferguson.

“We come into it a bit later and it gives me an opportunity to play the young players as I did against Wolves. They responded very well.

“The players who played against Wolves are hopefully the future of the club. There’s a great potential there. All we have to do is develop that potential and realise it. By the time they are 24 or 25, we hope they will be the next Manchester United.”

The match could also offer young wingers Bébé and Gabriel Obertan another chance in the first team picture against West Ham United. Obertan scored a stunning goal against Bursaspor recently, while Bébé struck a magnificent double for the reserves last week.

Indeed, the match is perhaps more crucial to Obertan, who has now been at the club for 18 months but is yet to break into the first team on a regular basis despite injuries to Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia.

Of those who started on Saturday perhaps only Anderson could feature tonight, with the Brazilian short of minutes this season. The player’s forceful performance against Rovers was a reminder of those early in his United career. However, in the past two seasons the midfielder has failed to progress, with injuries and temperament holding the 23-year-old back.

Ryan Giggs, also short of minutes this season, could feature from the bench as the Welsh legend, 37 yesterday, regains fitness.

But it is United’s youngsters whom are the focus tonight, with 20-year-old Amos hoping to force his way into the first team picture. Surprisingly promoted to number three ‘keeper after Ben Foster’s departure in the summer, Amos says that he is learning from Edwin van der Sar every day.

“I’ve said a few times that it is a little bit like training with your dad,” the Macclesfield-born player told ManUtd.com.

“I don’t think he’ll appreciate that, but he’s great. I’m chewing at his ear all the time, trying to get bits of advice. He’s very open and he says what he thinks.

“There’s only one position and we train a lot, training everyday without playing is difficult, but you’ve just got to keep yourself motivated and make sure you’re ready and available when you’re needed.

“The next game is always a target for me. They don’t come round too often being the number three keeper, so I’ve just got to make sure I’m ready and I’m peaking when those games come around.”

United’s last defeat in this competition came in September 2008 when Coventry City won 2-0 at Old Trafford in the third round. Since which time Ferguson’s fringe side picked up the trophies in Spring 2009 and 2010.

United’s recent record against West Ham is excellent too, despite the painful results in 1995 and 1992, which cost United the Premier League. Ferguson’s side has scored 13 goals without reply against the Hammers in the last five meetings between the sides, with the Reds winning the last half-dozen encounters.

Meanwhile, West Ham is expected to field a strong team, although key players Frederic Piquionne, Valon Behrami and Scott Parker miss the game through injury. Danny Gabbidon, Herita Ilunga, and Kieron Dyer joined Mark Noble, Manuel da Costa, Jack Collison and Thomas Hitzlsperger as long-term absentees this week, while Lars Jacobsen is cup-tied.

However, Mexican winger Pablo Barrera is looking forward to meeting compatriot Hernández with whom he stared at the World Cup in South Africa.

“I know him well. We first played alongside each other for the under-20 national team when we were 18 or 19 years old. He’s a year younger than me,” said Barrera.

“He’s a good guy. He’s laid back but works hard, is very conscientious and is a good player.”

Given Hernández’ scoring record this season, few would bet against the striker hitting the net again tonight.

Opposition
West Ham – 442 – Green; Gabbidon, Jacobsen, Upson, Tomkins; Kovac, Behrami, Barrera, Stanislas; Piquionne, Obinna.

Subs from: Boffin, Boa Morte, Hines, McCarthy, Reid, Cole, Spector, Faubert, Nouble, Spence, Kurucz, Stech, Brown.

United
United – 442 – Amos; Neville, Smalling, Evans, Fábio; Bébé, Gibson, O’Shea, Obertan; Macheda, Hernández.

Subs from: Rafael, Brown, Anderson, Carrick, Park, Eikrem, Dudgeon, Gill, Morrison, Brady, Kuszczak, Fletcher, Giggs.

Officials
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistant referees: R S Ganfield & S Ledger
Fourth official: Andre Marriner

Form
West Ham – LDDDLW
United – WDDWWW

Can Berbatov find a new consistency?

November 29, 2010 Tags: Opinion 13 comments

Shortly before Dimitar Berbatov scored five against Blackburn Rovers on Saturday a leading media outlet declared that Sir Alex Ferguson had given the Bulgarian striker six months to save his Manchester United career. It’s a claim open to ridicule when a player has scored five but perhaps not that far off the truth either.

After all, Berbatov has rarely found the consistency required of a United player in two and half years at Old Trafford. The burst on Saturday came after a run of 10 matches without a goal and some frustratingly brittle performances to boot.

Failure of consistency is an accusation that is levelled against both Berbatov’s output and his performances for the club. So brilliant he is often worth the Glazers’ inflated ticket prices one week. So frustratingly wasteful that neither manager nor fans can trust him the next.

In statistics supporters often find salvation. In 103 appearances for the club, the Bulgarian’s bare output is no embarrassment; 38 goals and 18 assists point to both a creator and finisher. Much as Ferguson had predicted when signing the player for more than £30 million in August 2008.

Indeed, as Berbatov scored seven goals in the opening six fixtures this season many observers ate their most critical words. Berbatov finally married consistent goalscoring to his undoubted artistry. Ten games, no goals and an overwhelming sense of frustration later and Berbatov’s opening six weeks seemed an exception to prove a rule.

The 29-year-old striker’s tendency to disappear from games when he is not in prime form came to fore once again in the past two months, just as it had last season. Just 12 goals last term led to Ferguson regularly leaving out his record signing. The Scot did the same last weekend, ignominiously leaving Berbatov out of his matchday 18 against Wigan Athletic.

It leaves supporters wondering whether Berbatov can ever find the consistency expected of a £30 million player. Indeed, Berbatov expressed relief after the performance against Blackburn, with five goals signaling the end of a ‘worrying’ period for the Bulgarian star.

“In the end I’m pleased with the performance and the goals I scored, personally I was very impressed with myself,” said Berbatov.

“I’ve scored five before but it was a long time ago back home. To do it in the Premier League when only four other players have done it, to stand next to Shearer and Andy Cole is a great honour.”

“I was a little bit worried. When you are a striker people tend to only look at the goals you score.”

But if goals are the currency, then Berbatov comes up short at the highest level. In matches against other members of the traditional ‘big four’ the Bulgarian has scored just five in 14 games for United. Three of those came against Liverpool this season. The  record is little better against other contenders. He has two in seven matches against former club Tottenham Hotspur and none in five games against Manchester City.

In the Champions League the striker has just four in 18 games, these coming against the lesser lights of Aalboug and Celtic. For a creative player, Berbatov is credited with just one assist in those 18 fixtures.

None of which, of course, makes for comfortable reading for the striker, who on that evidence is little more than a flat-track bully, despite topping this season’s Premier League scoring charts with 11.

Sam Allardyce, whose team suffered at Berbatov’s feet on Saturday, moved to defend the 29-year-old striker against his many critics.

“Dimitar has a laid-back style,” Allardyce said.

“You have to understand the intelligence of Berbatov, how he finds spaces in tight areas, how rarely his touch deserts him, how he looks slow but is actually far quicker.

“It takes time to settle in and play for Manchester United. Just because you cost £30 million it doesn’t mean you are going to be an instant success, you still have to get used to playing for Manchester United and the pressure of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world.”

That Allardyce should feel the need to speak out on Berbatov’s behalf speaks loudly. Indeed, eight of the striker’s goals this season have come in two games, which is a pointer to the overwhelming frustration with a player whose outstanding ability should bring so much more consistency.

There should be no debate; technically, Berbatov has few limits. His talent deserves all the personal and team accolades possible.

Mentally though, questions remain. Will the Bulgarian follow Saturday’s quintet with goals in the coming weeks, including matches against Chelsea and Arsenal in December? History suggests it unlikely and with Rooney now fit, there’s no guarantee Ferguson will even select the Bulgarian for United’s biggest games.

That is Berbatov’s legacy and it is so much less than it could be. There is time though, with the player contracted to United until June 2012 and talks over a new contract still possible before next summer.

Berbatov’s talent could yet bring a 25 goal season though. Supporters, team and most of all Berbatov himself deserve that level of consistency.

United top with Berba’s famous five

November 27, 2010 Tags: , Matches 8 comments

Dimitar Berbatov scored five goals as Manchester United thumped Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford to take the Premier League lead for the first time this season. The Bulgarian hadn’t scored in 10 matches but put the drought behind him in emphatic style and became just the fourth man in the Premier League era to score five in a match.

Rooney was again the focus of attention before the match, with the 25-year-old striker seeking his first goal from open play this season but the former Evertonian was thoroughly upstaged by Berbatov, whose own position in the United team is under threat. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson dropped the 29-year-old for last week’s fixture with Wigan Athletic.

Yet this was a match in which all the constituent parts came together for United after a series of underwhelming performances this season despite the unbeaten start. The Reds finishing, passing and especially movement were better than at almost any time in the past five months.

Remarkably United now lies top of the Premier League table by two points, having also hauled in Chelsea’s previously large goal-difference advantage to boot.

“We’ve been waiting for that performance for weeks,” Ferguson told Sky Sports News.

“We kept saying our rhythm and tempo was not good enough in the last few weeks, but today it was, we’ve found it and it’s pleasing to get it at this time of the season.”

“It was a fantastic achievement. He [Berbatov] could have scored six too because Paul Robinson made a fantastic save near the end.

“When strikers are not scoring they don’t think they are doing their job right. That has always been the case. Today it came back.”

With Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher absent through injury, Ferguson handed a start to Anderson in central midfield. The 23-year-old Brazilian has missed much of the campaign through injury, illness and poor form.

If Berbatov was under pressure to perform, then perhaps no more so than the £17 million former Porto midfielder who has so rarely justified the price-tag in three years at Old Trafford.

But Anderson was central to United’s opening goal inside two minutes, catching Rovers’ goalkeeper Paul Robinson in a challenge and enabling Berbatov to profit once the cross was delivered – the Bulgarian poking home Nani’s cross on just 72 seconds with Robinson poorly positioned.

Neater in possession today than is often the case, Anderson put in the type of box-to-box performance that so impressed United supporters when the player first arrived in Manchester.

Rooney was heavily involved in United’s second, exchanging passes with Park Ji-Sung before the South Korean lifted a finish over Robinson for his fifth goal of the season. It has largely been a poor season from Park but his goals tally is now equal of any campaign in more than five years in Manchester.

Pascal Chimbonda gifted Berbatov a second – and United’s third – moments later, with a laughably poor backpass towards Robinson before the half-hour was up, with the Bulgarian gleefully taking the chance.

Four more followed in the second half, with Blackburn no less impotent in the first and United in a mood not often seen at Old Trafford recently. Berbatov added a fourth and his third – a second hat-trick of the season – from 12 yards shortly after the half-time break. The interplay between Evra, Berbatov and Nani as sweet as anything produced by United this season.

Nani drove home an individual fifth just moments later, before Berbatov added his own fourth and fifth of the afternoon before 70 minutes was up.

That United failed to make double figures for the first time since the 1950s was a factor of some excellent goalkeeping by Robinson – not before time – and inevitably the hosts’ intensity dropping a notch.

Berbatov is often accused of seeking artistry over output but can delight in his contribution today. If the Bulgarian’s five haven’t put to bed questions about his Old Trafford future, they’re certainly a weapon in the 29-year-old’s armoury come potential contract negotiations next summer.

“I can’t believe it. I scored five in a game but it happened,” said the former Tottenham Hotspur striker.

“I have scored that many before but it was a long time ago back home in Bulgaria.

“Today I did it in the Premier League. The first goal was the most important, it gives you the confidence to play.

“As a striker, people do tend only to look at the goals you score. I am more concerned with how I play but today was all about goals for me.”

Yet for all the goals, Berbatov’s combination play with Rooney was the most striking aspect of the afternoon. Not always noted for their understanding, the pair offered a dynamic pairing and a sign of the genuine threat any all levels United could offer in forward areas.

If only each could find consistency and fitness on the pitch, together with some stability off it.

And with Berbatov’s personal goal demon slain, what hope Rooney will achieve the same sooner, rather than later?

Match Facts
United – 442 – Van der Sar; Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic (Evans 64), Evra; Nani, Anderson, Carrick, Park (Obertan 72); Berbatov, Rooney.

Blackburn – 4141 – Robinson; Salgado, Samba, Nelsen, Chimbonda; Jones; Emerton (Linganzi 52), Dunn, Goulon (Hoilett 28), Diouf (Morris 52); Roberts.

Attendance – 74,850
Man of the Match – Berbatov

Possession: United 59% – 41% Blackburn
Attempts: 15 – 3
On Target: 11 – 2
Corners: 5 – 2
Fouls: 6 – 6

United seek Premier summit

November 27, 2010 Tags: , Matches 89 comments

Wayne Rooney will make his first Old Trafford start in more than a month as Manchester United chase first place in the Premier League. The striker, who Thursday made a half-hearted apology to United supporters, is yet to score a goal in open play this season. Elsewhere manager Sir Alex Ferguson faces midfield selection problems .

Ferguson is without Darren Fletcher, who has a sore ankle, and Paul Scholes, absent with a tweaked a groin muscle sustained in midweek, for Blackburn Rovers’ visit where victory could catapult United to the Premier League summit. United remains second only on goal difference, with Chelsea set to play on Sunday.

The race for the league title now begins in earnest, with the Rooney saga now all but over. Indeed, Rooney could be key in securing United leadership before the New Year with Chelsea faltering in recent weeks.

“He needs games,” said Ferguson of Rooney.

“The way we are going to do that is to keep him on the pitch for 90 minutes. That will continue now as we try to get him to his level. He is rusty, that is obvious, but it is a start for him.

“Playing is the name of the game for him now.”

The absentees in midfield could mean a start for Anderson, who has been rarely used this season due to poor form, fitness and a recent illness. The Brazilian overcame knee-ligament damage sustained in February but suffered with the ‘flu virus that swept the United camp over the past fortnight.

Ferguson must also choose whether to keep faith with Dimitar Berbatov, who has now failed to score in more than 13 hours, stretching across 10 matches, since the Bulgarian scored a hat-trick against Liverpool in September. Berbatov sat out last weekend’s victory over Wigan Athletic but returned – to mixed reviews – against Rangers in the Champions League on Wednesday. Six-goal Javier Hernández waits in the wings

Elsewhere United can welcome back first choice central defensive pairing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic after Ferguson rested the duo for the visit to Scotland,, with Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling dropping to the bench.

Ryan Giggs may also find himself benched after completing the full 90 minutes at Ibrox on Wednesday night.

The focus remains on Rooney though after the 25-year-old scored the match-winning penalty against Rangers. Ferguson praised Rooney’s “courage” in stroking home the 87th minute spot-kick and is likely to offer the former Evertonian another 90 minutes against Blackburn.

However, Rooney’s apology to United fans on Thursday has not received universal acceptance, coming 22 days after the striker signed a lavish £180,000 per week contract with the club. Rooney claimed to have already apologised – which he had not – before offering a somewhat half-hearted statement.

“I feel like I have apologised to the fans, but everyone keeps saying that I haven’t and, if that is the case, then I apologise for my side of things.

“I have made my point clear since I signed my contract that I am committed to this club for the long term and I want to be successful with this club. I spoke with the manager and [the chief executive] David Gill and they reassured me the club was moving forward and, from that point, it took only two or three hours to negotiate my contract and sign it.

“Everyone is saying that I was definitely going to Man City. Believe me, if I had gone it wouldn’t have been in England.”

However, the striker’s statement contradicts the widely held view that Rooney was prepared to accept a £260,000 per week offer from cross-town neighbours Manchester City before bowing to media and supporter pressuring and inking a new deal at Old Trafford.

Meanwhile, Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce is missing several key players for the short trip to Old Trafford. Keith Andrews, Vince Grella, Benjani, Steven Nzonzi, Martin Olsson and Brett Emerton all miss the match through injury, while Mame Diouf is ineligible to play against his parent club.

Blackburn has not beaten United since the 4-3 victory at Ewood Park in February 2006 – a run of nine matches. United, with Rooney seeking a first goal in open play this season, has little intention of letting that
run end today.

Opposition
Blackburn – 451 – Robinson; Samba, Givet, Nelsen, Salgado; Dunn, Pedersen, Goulon, Hoilett, Diouf; Roberts. Subs from: Chimbonda, Jones, Bunn, Hanley, Morris, Kalinic, Hanley, Doran.

United
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Carrick, Park – Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Amos, Fabio da Silva, Evans, Smalling, O’Shea, Brown, Gibson, Obertan, Bébé, Giggs, Hernández, Macheda.

Officials
Referee: Lee Probert
Assistant referees: Patrick Keane & Trevor Massey
Fourth official: Chris Foy

Form
United – WDDWWW
Blackburn – WLWWLL

PlayPlay

Rant Cast 49 – was that a boo or Roo?

November 26, 2010 Tags: Rant Cast 9 comments

In this edition regulars Ed & Paul discuss United’s recent victories over Wigan Athletic and Rangers, together with the upcoming fixtures against Blackburn Rovers and West Ham United. We talk about Wayne Rooney’s return to the side and wonder whether he received a more positive reaction than he actually deserved?

Stream this episode of the podcast using the player below or click here to download the podcast (right click & save as).

We welcome your input – send all feedback to cast@unitedrant.co.uk or comment below.

Follow Rant Cast on Twitter @UtdRantCast

Subscribe on iTunes now.

Five years on

November 25, 2010 Tags: Shorts 7 comments

For those Manchester United fans born in the 1970s or later, George Best is remembered predominantly in archive footage and countless YouTube video tributes. A remarkable man both on and off the pitch, Best retains the affection of millions despite – and perhaps because of – the many controversies in his life.

Five years on from his death, fans continue to remember the man who was both a genius on the pitch and larger than life off it. Now immortalised in bronze outside Old Trafford’s East Stand, Best’s stature is more than simply a player who made almost 500 appearances for the club. He is the embodiment of the club and a central tenet in its growth to worldwide fame and affection.

Enjoy the memories.

Credits: Photo – Flickr/AtilaTheHun and Video – YouTube/johanceder

Rooney strikes winning note on return

November 24, 2010 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

Wayne Rooney scored for Manchester United as Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit won at Ibrox. The 25-year-old striker slammed home an 86th minute penalty as United qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League with a hard-earned victory over Rangers in Glasgow. It was just deserts for United after dominating the game.

Rooney was largely anonymous in his first start for more than a month but scored the crucial goal after Steven Naismith’s crude late challenge on Fabio da Silva.

True to recent form Rangers defended in numbers for much of the tie, attempting to catch United on the break despite the Scottish champions needing a win to progress in the competition.

Indeed, much as in the fixture at Old Trafford, Rangers frustrated United for large periods only for Rooney’s late goal winning the points for the visitors and the manager’s praise.

“It took courage for Wayne Rooney to take the penalty, it wasn’t the easiest night for him having missed couple of chances,” Ferguson said.

“There’s still some rustiness in his game. We deserved to win tonight and I think we want to go on and win the group. We have Valencia at home and maybe we’ll make one or two changes.”

Ferguson deployed a stronger side in Glasgow than at Old Trafford a month ago, including Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov in a front two. Indeed, the Bulgarian had a decent shout for a penalty just three minutes into the match, with Ricky Foster seemingly bundling over the 29-year-old striker.

In a strong opening 10 minutes for United, Berbatov then headed straight at Alan McGregor when well positioned before Paul Scholes’ 25-yarder was blocked on the edge of the area; the Scots struggling to pick up the Bulgarian when he dropped deep.

Indeed, the tempo of United’s play was far better than at any point during the Old Trafford fixture, although Rooney barely had any influence on the game. Clearly rusty after more than a month on the sidelines, the 25-year-old snatched at a difficult chance on the volley before seeing another shot blocked. Certainly no Rooney of eight months ago.

Rangers though remained typically obdurate, packing midfield and falling back to the edge of the area when under pressure. Pretty it isn’t but Rangers has found a way of not conceding despite the limited budget enjoyed by the Scottish champions.

United’s one touch play continued to impress though, with Michael Carrick and Nani opening up the Rangers defence before the Portuguese fired high over McGregor’s goal. Then the game almost came to life, with Rooney heading against McGregor’s bar from Fabio da Silva’s outstanding left-wing cross.

Yet Rangers arguably created the best chance of the opening period, with Kenny Millar firing straight at Edwin van der Sar from six yards.

Despite Rangers desperately needing the win to hold any chance of progressing the pattern barely changed in the second period, with Walter Smith’s side decamping to its own penalty area whenever United held possession.

Yet Rooney and Berbatov opened up the Rangers defence minutes into the second period, with Carrick unable to beat McGregor when well placed. The Geordie’s form has improved in recent weeks but goalscoring is not one of the 29-year-old’s strengths.

Rangers’ Naismith could have scored though when Jonny Evans failed to clear a routine through ball, requiring van der Sar to save at the Scot’s feet. On such moments can games, even as one-sided as this, be won and lost.

As Rangers seemingly dropped ever deeper United kept possession well but appeared out of ideas, with both Rooney and Berbatov dropping ever closer to the visitors’ midfield. Even Scholes was unable to carve out an opening, being replaced with twenty minutes remaining.

Berbatov, with a shot blocked, and then Rooney, who headed wide, were both well placed to open up the scoring as United sought the win in the final quarter. The Scouser then failed to connect with Berbatov’s sublime lofted pass.

It proved the Bulgarian’s final action of the match, with Javier Hernández replacing the former Tottenham Hotspur star with 20 to go.

Then the winning goal, with Fabio bravely heading towards goal only for Naismith to catch the Brazilian with a wild attempt at the ball.

Rooney gleefully slammed home the penalty to earn United the win and qualification for the knock out stages.

Match Facts
Rangers – 4141 – McGregor; Weir, Broadfoot, Foster, Whittaker, McCulloch; Davis; Weiss (Fleck 80), Naismith, Hutton; Miller.

United – 442 – Van der Sar; O’Shea, Smalling, Evans, Fabio Da Silva; Nani (Obertan 77), Carrick, Scholes (Anderson 67), Giggs; Berbatov (Hernandez 76), Rooney.

Attendance – 49,764
Man of the Match – Carrick

Possession: Rangers 44% – 56% United
Attempts: 7 – 20
On target: 5 – 12
Corners: 1 – 13
Fouls: 8 – 13