Manchester United kept up their perfect record in this season’s Champions League with fully deserved win in Russia last night. Returning to the Luzhniki Stadium – scene of United’s 2008 Champions League triumph over Chelsea – Sir Alex Ferguson’s men beat CSKA Moscow in group B with a solitary Antonio Valencia strike.
Despite leaving a quintet key players at home, Ferguson’s team controlled proceedings from the off. Starting with the now typical European five man midfield, Dimitar Berbatov ploughed a lonely furrow up-front, with Michael Owen left on the bench. John O’Shea made a surprise return to central midfield and Brazilian teenage Fabio da Silva started his first Champions League game at left-back.
It was tough going for United’s Bulgarian striker but with Nani and Valencia offering outstanding support from wide areas United was the only side posing a real threat.
Scholes’ shot from 30-yards troubled CSKA’s goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, linked with a move to United this week, who palmed away awkwardly. And then Gary Neville curled a shot just over as United took control of the first half.
In spite of the oft-mocked Irishman’s presence in a holding role, United maintained possession comfortably on the Luzhniki’s artificial pitch. But with the middle of the park highly congested chances came at a premium in a tight first period.
If ever a game adhered to the old cliché, United changed the match radically in the second period, resorting to a direct approach by switching play from back to front. Tactically it was hardly United but on the night when the plastic surface played a significant part in proceedings, Ferguson had the measure of his opponents.
Nani in particular was influential, stretching the game on the left, with Valencia offering support from the right as United looked to find space in the channels. Débutant Fabio, using his pace to full effect before leaving the field with cramp, often doubled up with the Portuguese winger to offer United considerable penetration.
Substitute Owen on for Paul Scholes – protected ahead of Sunday’s match with Liverpool – missed a chance on the volley within minutes of joining the match. Valencia then capped the move of the match by crashing a shot against the bar after swapping passes with Nani.
But United was not denied and earned a hard fought for winner with less than five minutes to go. Valencia slammed home at the near post from eight yards for his second goal in as many games.
“I said before the game that if you’re a good footballer you concentrate on the ball. I think they did that and they did it well,” manager Ferguson told Sky Sports after the match.
“We wanted to go for a surge through the middle rather than in the wide positions and I think that worked quite well.
“We had some good chances at the end of the day, we improved our goalscoring chances and we’re pleased Antonio Valencia has got a good goal.”
Ferguson also praised United’s patience – a hallmark of his side’s performances away from home in the Champions League. The Old Trafford outfit is now unbeaten in 14 European away ties.
“In the first half I think we played with a lot patience, which is necessary when you are playing away from home,” Ferguson said.
“Experience in these sort of situations is always vital. In the second half I think we increased the tempo of the game and got more penetration.
“We created some good goal opportunities and if we have to wait to the 86th minute, so be it. We had to have the patience to win, and we did that.”