Matches

Matches

OT welcomes City’s nouveau riche

September 18, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

City arrive at Old Trafford this weekend having usurped the champions as the wealthiest club in the Manchester, with ambitions of extending that superiority to the pitch. The City ‘project’ has come some distance since last summer, with more than £200 million spent on a series of high profile, if over-expensive, new players. If there was any doubt that the club’s Abu Dhabi-based owners are serious about breaking into the Premier League’s top four, then there shouldn’t be any now.

The Eastlands outfit cross town in good form, having won four Premier League games in a row, including a controversial 4 – 2 win against Arsenal last weekend. But manager Mark Hughes heads back to his old stomping ground with around £100 million worth of talent unavailable. Carlos Tevez is unlikely to be fully fit, Roque Santa Cruz has yet to play this season and Emmanuel Adebayor has taken it upon himself to perform boot-based facial surgery on an old team-mate, while picking a fight with his former club’s supporters.

Sir Alex Ferguson, meanwhile, will hope to pick from a full squad – less the suspended Paul Scholes and injured Owen Hargreaves and Rafael da Silva. Rio Ferdinand will face a late test on his fitness, having picked up a minor groin injury after the victory over Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. Johnny Evans stands by to partner Nemanja Vidic, while Ferguson will pick from Michael Carrick, Anderson and Darren Fletcher in central midfield.

There will be a close focus on United’s tactical outlook for the match, with the manager having used Wayne Rooney as a lone striker against Besiktas in midweek and in the home game against Arsenal. Are City to be considered a genuine threat this season, or will the manager go for the jugular and include Dimitar Berbatov alongside Rooney?

With Hughes missing key talent and United at home, Ferguson must sense that now is the time to set down a marker.

“They’ve had a softish start to the season with two or three easier games, but the result against Arsenal on Saturday was the one that surprised people. Scoring four goals against Arsenal was an emphatic result,” said Ferguson.

“When you get off to a good start, it definitely galvanises you and gives you the confidence. And of course, they have such a big squad and a lot of players – they have about seven centre-forwards. But when you have spent that kind of money, and the wages they are paying, you have to win the league with that kind of investment.

“That is where the difficulty will come for them and it will be very difficult for City when you see the likes of ourselves, Chelsea and Liverpool and Arsenal.

On the terraces fans are looking forward not only to United’s team taking City down a peg or two but welcoming the liar Carlos Tevez back to Old Trafford with a special brand of warmth and affection. Ferguson, though, isn’t concerned about the little striker’s return. “I am not bothered whether Tevez plays or not,” said Ferguson. “Manchester City’s best player won’t be playing. Adebayor is their star player”

Ouch.

United edges Bosphorus battle

September 16, 2009 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

Manchester United came through its opening Champions League group match in Istanbul last night, in what was a professional if unspectacular performance. Paul Scholes’ header was enough to take the points at the unbelievably noisy BJK İnönü Stadium, with Beşiktaş’ passionate fans creating one of the best atmospheres in recent memory. While Sir Alex Ferguson is rightly delighted with the result and a performance that shut out the home side, there was little to strike fear into United’s European rivals.

“I don’t think it was our best game, but a win’s a win,” man-of-the match Scholes told Sky Sports following the match.

“Turkey’s a difficult place to come and Beşiktaş were a decent team with a good crowd behind them.

“It’s always nice to score goals. I think it was the first time I’d got up the pitch. I didn’t have much chance to get up there. It was an important time to score a goal. It was a disappointment last year — we still did well to get to the final, but we want to go one better this year.”

While Scholes’ goal was ultimately pivotal to United’s win last night, it was the ginger midfielder’s metronomic passing that enabled his side to control the tempo of the game. Much as was the case for an hour against Spurs on Saturday. That the team travelled away from home and retained 60% of the ball in the first half is evidence of United’s tactical approach – keep it tight for an hour and then go for the win.

Indeed, Ferguson must have felt he’d broken the back of Beşiktaş by the time he removed Wayne Rooney on the hour, bringing on both Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov. The change gave United greater impetus, with wingers Nani and Antonio Valencia becoming increasingly penetrative on the touchlines.

“Being the first game you always want to win that but I was quite comfortable with the performance,” manager Sir Alex Ferguson said after the match.

“I thought they did quite well most of the time, kept good possession. We were the better team, the concentration had to be good because it was a fantastic atmosphere and a test of the concentration and a test of the nerves.”

However, many fans were disappointed with the tactics that attempted to nullify the opposition – and their incredible fans – rather than create chances. This is a common pattern in Europe and it has been a number of seasons since Ferguson regularly deployed two strikers away from home in the Champions League.

Once again Rooney was left isolated and largely frustrated by a system that was hard to break down but created only a smattering of opportunities in the first hour. But fans should get used to it – this will be the pattern of United’s play for the remainder of the competition and United’s principal strength is in defence.

The Beşiktaş fans were a sight to behold, with the ground bouncing, clapping, chanting and singing for the full 90 minutes. Recent tests have apparently shown that fans at BJK İnönü Stadium are the world’s noisiest, being recorded at more than 130 Db. That’s louder that a jumbo so the experts would have us believe. Something the Stretford End might want to think about come the weekend’s match against City.

“They create an atmosphere over here like no other country in Europe,” captain Gary Neville said.

“I think if Beşiktaş had got a goal it would have been a really hard night for us. So to keep a clean sheet was important – once we get in front we aim to make it very difficult for other sides.

“European football’s always really hard so we’re really happy with the win. It puts us in a good position.”

Bring on City.

United begins Euro adventure

September 15, 2009 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

Manchester United begins its European campaign tonight, seeking to go one better than last season, with the pain of comprehensive defeat to Barcelona in Rome still fresh. But as in domestic matters the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez have left many pundits expecting Euro failure this season.

Tonight sees United take on Beşiktaş at the picturesque BJK İnönü Stadium in Istanbul, in what could amount to a 13 match European season. There follows tough looking group games against VfL Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow, alongside the Turkish champions. But if getting out of a tough looking group B will be hard enough then redemption in the form of a Champions League win in Madrid, 22 May 2010 looks a world away. Naturally that is not an assessment that many United players agree with.

“The Champions League is the stuff of dreams and, as a kid growing up, you sit there thinking if you will ever be good enough to win it,” defender Rio Ferdinand told The Guardian.

“To be able to get there and win it was ridiculous for me, especially the way we did it on penalties against Chelsea. But having also lost a Champions League final, I know what that feels like too and it’s not an easy thing for me to talk about. It was sickening because it was our chance to win the trophy for a second successive year.

“We felt that we were on the cusp of greatness and the worst thing about it was that we didn’t even put up a fight really. To lose the way we did was really difficult. We just never got going. If we had scored in the first 10 minutes, I think we’d have gone on to win the game, but they got the first goal and it stunned us. We never recovered after that and that’s what is so disappointing.”

The pain of Rome’s final clearly resonates as deeply with Ferdinand as it does with most fans. Fourteen weeks on from the 2-0 defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team and the search for answers still continues. Indeed, it was not the defeat itself but the manner in the context of last season that caused so much consternation. While United did not play the best football of any team in last season’s Champions League – that honour belongs to the eventual winners – the team did play some of the most effective.

Tonight marks an opportunity to put the past to bed and leave the regrets of Rome behind. Yet Beşiktaş represents no walkover and not solely for their vociferous support – the standard of Turkish football has improved markedly over the past decade. The Beşiktaş side contains not only former Barcelona goalkeeper Rüştü Reçber, but the Brazilian Bobô and former Inter and Everton defender Matteo Ferrari. The cosmopolitan nature of the squad reflecting the improved financial power of the Turkcell Süper Lig.

Despite the improved strength of Turkish football, Beşiktaş is seen as an opportunity for manager Sir Alex Ferguson to rotate the squad, with the weekend’s local derby front of mind. Don’t be surprised to see Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Ryan Giggs on the bench for tonight’s match. None will want to be in a similar position in Madrid, eight months from now.

Fergie out-thinks hapless Harry

September 13, 2009 Tags: , Matches 11 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will leave London tomorrow morning for United’s Champions League fixture at Besiktas, fresh from his side’s best performance of the season to date. The visitors beat a resurgent Spurs at a canter after Sir Alex out thought and his team out passed White Hart Lane’s pretenders to the top four. Following victory over Arsenal last time out, United’s machine is now moving through the gears.

Some pundits had felt the home side started favourites, after four Premier League wins in a row.

Indeed, those pundits were proven right but only for the 47 seconds it took for Jermain Defoe to put the home side ahead with a high quality overhead. Momentarily Tottenham’s fans forgot about that penalty in United’s 5 – 2 win last season. United hadn’t read the same script as the experts though and despite going down to the early strike, dominated possession during an entertaining first half.

If Ryan Giggs has turned back the clock over the past year, then he also reminded any fans who had forgotten about his dead ball skills in the 25th minute. The departed Cristiano Ronaldo may have taken 90% of free kicks over the past few years but there’s now a new kid in town now. Giggs buried a wonderful strike into the top corner of Carlo Cudicini’s goal.

Anderson’s first competitive goal of his 78-game United career came just 15 minutes later following Paul Scholes’ wayward shot. Sir Alex talked in pre-season of Anderson’s new goalscoring responsibilities. That’s one of at least 10 required for the campaign. Aside from the goal the Brazilian also put in his best performance of the season, using the ball wisely and offering protection to the back four. A welcome return to form.

Then came Scholes’ controversial red card. The ginger midfielder had pulled the strings all day, teaching Wilson Palacios and Tom Huddlestone in the Spurs midfield a lesson in the art. But Scholes just can’t resist a tackle, as is his habit of the last 15 years. If the midfielder’s first yellow was fully deserved after yet another rash challenge, then the second was unfortunate. Sliding into a genuine 50/50 challenge, Scholes and Huddlestone came together at largely the same moment. The Spurs man grabbed his face, Andre Mariner fell for it, and the result was Scholes’ ninth red card of his United career.

From there Spurs should have posed far more of a threat but United were outstanding on the day. With the excellent Dimitar Berbatov sacrificed for the cause, Wayne Rooney ran his socks off alone up front and Michael Carrick dictated the tempo in the middle of the park. United’s third was almost inevitable given the visitors’ continued dominance.

It was a victory born not only in the  excellence of United’s players at White Hart Lane but a system that was as right for the opponents as the toothless 4-5-1 was wrong against Arsenal. Deploying Rooney on the shoulders of the Spurs central defence and Berbatov ‘in-the-hole’, United were able to gain both possession and territorial advantage. Such was Berbatov’s excellence for 60 minutes that his substitution was particularly unfair on the Bulgarian. Rooney meanwhile was truly magnificent.

Tottenham on the other hand were a tactical mess, with Robbie Keane pushed wide left and the celebrated attacking football of Harry Redknapp’s teams reduced to aimless balls pumped long at Peter Crounch. Meat and drink for Nemanja Vidic and the returning Rio Ferdinand. Top of the league? You’re having a laugh sang the away support. How right they were.

On this form, United has nothing to worry about in Turkey.

United visit Spurs seeking momentum

September 11, 2009 Tags: , Matches 4 comments

Now that the World Cup break is over, Manchester United’s mass of international players can concentrate on the real task in hand – racking up points in search of a fourth title in a row. United return to Premier League action with a tough trip to White Hart Lane on Saturday, facing a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur side, with the glow of victory over Arsenal still warm. While question marks may still hang over the team’s form, three wins in four mean that United head to London as favourites for another victory.

Harry Redknapp, dodgy though he is, certainly produces teams that play football the right way. The game will no doubt be another classic in the mould of United’s 5 – 2 win at Old Trafford last season, or the magnificent comeback from three down in 2001. Indeed, Redknapp’s Spurs side has undergone the usual Harry makeover, with players leaving and arriving through an unstoppable revolving door. While the cynical may say this is simply to line the manager’s pockets, Redknapp has turned Spurs into genuine contenders for the top four.

The Tottenham manager’s problem in making the top four come May – aside from the strength of Arsenal and Manchester City – is in make-up of his squad. Harry has Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Roman Pavychenko on the books, but barely a fit central defender to call upon.

Central defence, of course, is an area upon which Sir Alex Ferguson is building his title defence. Indeed, Fergie will be able to pair Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic for the first time this season at White Hart Lane. Ferdinand returns after missing five games with a thigh injury.

The former West Ham United defender’s recovery is just in time, with Johnny Evans’ long-term fitness under question. The Northern Irishman’s left ankle must be operated on sooner, rather than later. Moreover the international break has ended with John O’Shea nursing a blood clot in his calf that could, in theory, keep the Irishman out for the next six weeks. And with Rafael da Silva still out, but Wes Brown and Gary Neville fit, the defence almost picks itself.

More focus at White Hart Lane will be on who Sir Alex chooses in forward areas. Will former Spurs favourite Dimitar Berbatov play, after sitting out the Arsenal win on the bench? After the Bulgarian’s performances at Wigan Athletic and then in Bugaria’s demolition of Montenegro in midweek, Berbatov deserves to play. But with Sir Alex almost permanently wedded to deploying a single striker in the biggest games it seems unlikely that Berbatov will start at his old stomping ground.

Either way, United faces one of its toughest away trips of the season.

Classic United v Spurs

September 10, 2009 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

It’s a football cliché but over the years there have been some classic Tottenham Hotspur versus Manchester United encounters from two teams that play the right way. United’s comeback from three down at White Hart Lane in 2001, or last season’s blistering second half spree at Old Trafford and of course the 2 – 1 win that brought the title to Old Trafford in 1999.

United 5 – 2 Tottenham Hotspur, Old Trafford, 26 April 2009
Last season’s comeback from two goals down was the moment that turned the Premier League title race, according to many pundits. United’s second half performance, led by the fab four of Wayen Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, was as good as anything United fans have witnessed in recent seasons.


Tottenham Hotspur 3 – 5 United, White Hart Lane, October 1 2001
United came back from three goals down at half time to win in emphatic style. Goals from Andy Cole, Laurent Blanc, Juan Sebastant Veron, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy capped a magnificent comeback and one of the finest second-half displays in recent memory.

David Beckham

United 2 -1 Tottenham Hotspur, Old Trafford, 17 May 1999
United needed a win in order to claim the first part of the 1999 treble. Not for the first (or last) time, United was forced to come from behind in order to win. Andy Cole went mad, Fergie hugged his staff and there was dancing in the streets of Piccadilly that night!


United 3 – 3 Tottenham Hotspur, Old Trafford, 12 August 1967
One for the Spurs’ fans here as Pat Jennings, Tottenham’s Northern Irish goalkeeper scores. Alex Stepney in the United goal won’t be happy with that one. Still ranks as one of the most celebrated Spurs goals ever.

Arsène loses plot as United win

August 30, 2009 Tags: , Matches 14 comments

United’s record in matches against the top four last season was poor, so Sir Alex Ferguson will have been delighted to walk away from Saturday evening’s match against Arsenal with all three points. With luck on their side, Ferguson’s men got away with a mediocre performance that required a penalty and an own goal to take the honours. But if the manner of the victory was fortunate, then United contributed to its own problems by deploying Wayne Rooney as a lone striker, which left the forward isolated and played into Arsenal’s hands.

United entered the match having played with two strikers throughout seven pre-season games, the Community Shield and three Premier League matches. It was a suprise then when Fergie reverted to type for United’s biggest test of the season, deploying Rooney alone up-front. Ferguson had talked beforehand about countering Arsenal’s new tendency to use three through the centre of midifield. The theory being that Nani and Valencia from the wings would provide ample support. But it was a decision that almost backfired, with Rooney often 30 yards from his nearest team-mates in the opening period, and United’s midfield reduced to punting long balls forward as Arsenal outpassed the home side.

The visitors probably deserved their lead at half-time after Andrei Arshavin’s wonderful strike. Ben Foster, who got both hands to the ball, couldn’t direct the 30-yard effort wide. But Ferguson is a winner and he breeds the same mentality in his troops. United may not have been playing well – possession was lost far too easily in the first 45 – but the team wasn’t about to be beaten meekly. Ferguson’s side, led by the peerless Ryan Giggs, increased the tempo after half time. While the result was certainly not “beyond belief” as Wenger whinged, it was one of those days when the details fell right for United. On other occasions the home side would have paid the price for such sloppy use of the ball.

While Valencia was anonymous on the right wing and Michael Carrick strangely wasteful in possession, Ryan Giggs was superb through the centre of the park. At 35 Giggs’ career should be winding down but on this evidence Fergie can ill afford to leave the Welshman out of the team. Giggs’ ability to change the pace of the game was central to United’s ability to force its way back into the match.

The penalty that brought United back into the game was fortunate but only in so far as Manuel Almunia had no sane reason to make the challenge. Racing out to meet Rooney, who was running away from goal, the Spaniard was always going to make heavy contact. The referee’s decision was spot on, no matter how much Arséne Wenger tries to blow smoke over his own side’s outrageous cheating in the past week.

Indeed, Emmanuel Eboué’s fully deserved yellow card for a blatant dive in the second half exposed the hypocrisy of monsieur Wenger’s faux rage at officialdom in the past week. That Eboué chose to target Evra, who had already been booked, demonstrates the depths to which this Arsenal team is prepared sink. Encouraged by Wenger’s ability to consistently defend the indefensible, the Frenchman’s team has evolved beyond a siege mentality to now act as if they are above all sanction. UEFA and the FA have surely taken note.

There was then some sense of justice in United’s – albeit outrageously lucky – winner. Abou Diaby will forever be an Old Trafford hero for the quality of his headed finish from Giggs’ right wing free kick. That no United player was within yards of the midfielder summed up Diaby’s performance, which was woeful from start to finish. It was a fortunate break but against Wenger’s obduracy all the more satisfying. The Arsenal manager talked about lack of experience in the post-match debrief. Boys against men indeed.

Then came the dénouement and there can have been few funnier scenes at Old Trafford than Wenger’s last-minute dismissal from the touchline. Born of frustration, Wenger booted a water bottle across his technical area. His sanction was obvious but the Frenchman’s refusal to sit in the stands – standing arms outstretched in-between the opposing dugouts – should be met with a lengthy ban. While the League Managers Association chief executive Richard Bevan has stated the Arsenal manager will “receive an apology from the FA,” he also recognised that the decision to send off Wenger was “correct in law.”

That Wenger’s myopia again failed to observe a correct decision by the officials – ruling van Persie’s goal offside – is utterly unsurprising. The man who would be king has become a national embarrassment.

United then will be able to bask in the satisfaction of victory over Arsenal during the two-week international break. It was a hard won match, if an unspectacular performance. But these are the points – and matches – upon which a fourth title in a row may just be built. It could also reignite the old United-Arsenal rivalry, which has been somewhat lukewarm in recent years.

United hit five, Rant takes credit

August 24, 2009 Tags: , Matches 8 comments

The message was loud and clear: United is back and how. Victory against Wigan Athletic may be commonplace but it was the five second half goals that has truly ignited United’s season. The response to last weekend’s underwhelming win over Birmingham City and the midweek defeat at Turf Moor was emphatic. But if United could have scored ten at the newly renamed DW stadium then there will still be concerns that there was profligacy in front of goal in the first half and a midfield that feels lightweight.

But what a response to criticism that the team lacks creativity and penetration without Cristiano Ronaldo. This was a United side that managed just four strikes on target against Burnley Wednesday night; there were nine more at the DW on Saturday. United, in this vein of form is always going to score goals, albeit against a Wigan team that was more than generous in defence. Roberto Martinez has brought his ethos of attacking passing football from Swansea but in this company his team needed a little more grit.

It took United nearly an hour to get started though and the flurry of late goals gave the scoreline a flattering feel. Wayne Rooney’s free-header for the opener was symptomatic of Wigan’s defending in the second 45. Indeed, better finishing from United’s forwards would have led to a cricket score given the number of chances that the team created.

But Wigan’s bright midfield three of xxx, xxx and xxxx were never out of the game, and the home side could have had three itself.There must still be a concern that United’s midfield lacks quality of the highest level. Paul Scholes, who was very fortunate not to see red after raising his hands, joined the excellent Darren Fletcher in central midfield. While Scholes is increasingly showing his age, The Scottish Player is no longer the love that dare not speak his name with the United fans. On a day when Rooney once again excelled in a central role, it was Fletcher that took the man-of-the-match plaudits. But United’s midfield four was sometimes overrun by Wigan’s three, and despite the away side hogging the possession better teams than the Latics would have cause United significant problems in the middle of the park.

On the wings Nani and Antonio Valencia were dangerous, although the mindless booing of the former Wigan player was as predictable as it was petty. Valencia created the space and delivered the cross for United’s opening goal, while Nani curled in a fine last minute free kick. Cristiano who?

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson will have been pleased to see both Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov score too. Owen’s superbly taken strike, clipped past the ‘keeper with his left foot, was easily the hardest of the chances he has created in the start to his United career. Meanwhile, Berbatov was bright and hard-working once again. Criticism of his performances last season were unfair, and it is clear the Bulgarian has put in the work during pre-season this time around.

United now face fixtures against in-form Arsenal and then Tottenham Hotspur. They are the first big tests of the season, despite the defeat at Turf Moor. United can ill afford to waste chances again in what are likely to be two tight games.

United betrayed by ponderous attack

August 22, 2009 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

United’s humiliating defeat at Burnley on Wednesday night is not the beginning of a crisis for the club. Early in the season, with a rash of defensive injuries, shocks are unsurprising. Even defeats such as United’s to Burnley Wednesday night. Save for another defeat this coming weekend, the word crisis can be placed firmly on the shelf. But the Turf Moor game confirmed the suspicions of pre-season that United without Ronaldo lack creativity and penetration in attack. Indeed, if the team needs around 114 goals to match last season’s achievements, it seems unlikely to achieve it with the current personnel.

Worryingly, newly promoted Burnley, with barely a player worthy of United’s reserve team, didn’t even have to ‘park the bus’ in order to beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Despite the away team’s superior possession, Burnley took the attack to United on the break  and looked consistently dangerous. All credit to them. For all United’s territorial advantage against the Turf Moor outfit, the team managed just four shots on target all night. One of those was Michael Carrick’s unsuccessful penalty.

Ferguson may be right in his assessment that United created enough chances to win the game but the team’s profligacy is a now recurring theme. Frankly, the chances created weren’t all that good anyway. Fans must hope that the 100 goals Ronaldo either scored or assisted in the past two seasons are not the difference between success and mediocrity.

But inherently Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Nani and Antonio Valencia are top class creative players; the goals should be flowing by now. Ferguson is right to say that the club has “a great group of players.” But the concern is that the team isn’t gelling in the way Sir Alex would have hoped. Shorn of Ronaldo, and tactically more predictable, United is a undeniably blunter force this season.

The defeat against Burnley was..

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Could it also be that the club’s forwards simply can’t work together? At international level Rooney and Michael Owen rarely clicked. At club level the evidence suggests that Rooney and Berbatov have failed to strike up a profitable relationship either. Meanwhile, it would be unfair on Valencia or Nani, talented though each is, to pretend that either can be the new Ronaldo.

Ferguson must also be concerned with Michael Owen’s likely success this season. Three competitive and seven pre-season matches on and Owen has scored only against the semi-professional teams on the Asian tour. Play him and the goals will come they say. The fans are still waiting.

Perhaps – most realistically – United is likely this season to be the ‘rigid’ team predicted by Darren Fletcher. Safety in defence is the team’s route to success this season. It’s a strategy that is being undermined by injuries, with Rio Ferdinand out for the next month, Johnny Evens in desperate need of an ankle operation and Nemanja Vidic only just returning to fitness. The Serb, who will play against Wigan at the weekend has no pre-season matches behind him. For the sake of a morale boosting victory against the Latics, fans will hope Vidic picks up the pace instantly.

Time to think required after demoralising Euro loss

May 28, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

The morning after the night before is never pretty. And for Manchester United’s team, waking up to the realisation of European Cup Final defeat, it must have been a particularly sobering dawn. More so for the genuine belief amongst players, fans and staff coming into the match that United were favourites to win a fourth European title. But Barcelona were not only good value for their win last night, they embarrassed United from the minute Eto’o’s opening goal hit the net. So much so that the players and manager will undergo a necessary bout of soul searching in order to come back better and stronger next season.

United can be proud of their season. Premier League winners, World Champions, Carling Cup victors, an FA Cup semi and a European Cup final. By almost any standard, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were highly successful. Along the way the Reds played some great football and created some wonderful memories. We saw the development of a tactically aware side, flexible and youthful attacking football and another Indian summer from United’s ageing stars. There are indeed no reasons to panic.

But a defeat of the magnitude and character suffered by the Reds last night cannot go without questions. Why did United’s players freeze so completely? Why did the team give away the ball so frequently? Why were United’s best players so tactically marginalised? A bad performance can be forgiven. Eleven bad performances are a cause for concern.

Part of United’s problem last night was tactical, part technical and part mental. Tactically, Wayne Rooney was sacrificed on the left-wing. Cristiano Ronaldo – by his own admission – used out of position once again and ineffective when hit with repeated long balls. And Ryan Giggs totally unable to provide the kind of physical, ball winning presence that the team so desperately needed in the Stadio Olimpico. So much so that the Welshman neglected his post, and shadowed Ronaldo for most of the first half.

"Moreover, when change was needed to bring United’s midfield back into the game, instead of narrowing the pitch and adding additional personnel into the centre of the park, United made an error by stretching the game. It simply meant the Reds’ defenders had less midfielders, not more, to find and ended up sending aimless long balls forward."

Technically, Barcelona were superior. That is not to say United’s players are not all comfortable on the ball. They are. Anderson, Michael Carrick and Giggs in midfield are all natural ball players. But placed under pressure by a team that not only passed the ball beautifully but were prepared to do the dirty work and press high up the pitch, United’s trio failed. Miserably.

Mentally the Reds crumbled after conceding the opening goal. It was a sight barely seen by a United fan in years. And a humiliating one at that. The confidence of the opening ten minutes was seemingly shattered in an instant, as Eto’o cut inside a badly wrong-footed Nemanja Vidic and then beat Edwin van der Sar – criminally – at his near post.

But this is no time for recriminations. There are reasons to be hopeful. And this is a top quality United side, make no mistake. The return of Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher will add some much needed steel to the midfield. Anderson will be a year older, and a year closer to fulfilling the potential for world-class talent. Berbatov will have had a year in the Old Trafford cauldron behind him, to settle the all-too-obvious nerves. And in Wellbeck and Macheda, United have a couple of wonderfully talented attacking players coming through.

And what of the manager, who seemed so shell shocked by it all? Sir Alex has made almost no mistakes this year but he too must take the time to ponder a key question. Is the 4-3-3 system, with Rooney marginalised on the left-wing, and Ronaldo out of his comfort zone through the centre, one that will win the 2010 Champions League?

Sir Alex, we trust that you know the answer.