Manchester United’s smash-and-grab raid on Spain’s third city brought three precious points to take Sir Alex Ferguson’s side top of Group C. For much of a dull encounter United sought to contain, only for substitute Javier Hernández to finish superbly with just five minutes on the clock and take just the second win in Spain in the club’s history.
It will prove a hugely satisfactory result for Ferguson, who had missed his side’s victory over Scunthorpe United last week to assess tonight’s opponents at first hand.
“I think the second half we certainly improved and had more penetration,” said Ferguson
“We had to make sure we were solid at the back and I don’t think they made many chances in the match.
“Macheda made a great run just before the goal and we needed that towards the end. It’s a great result for us, its not easy coming here. Our record over a long time (in Spain, isn’t good) but we’re pleased with that.”
Indeed, United started brightly, contesting possession evenly and packing midfield to eradicate the loose defending that has dogged the side’s away form this season. With Anderson playing closer to lone-striker Dimitar Berbatov than at almost any time in his three seasons with the club, and Michael Carrick shielding a defence that included the returning Rio Ferdinand.
The Brazilian who is so often lauded as United’s creative answer by supporters has rarely been used in a pure attacking role since his more to Europe in 2005. The return to an old role was only sporadically successful tonight, with the former Porto midfielder too often casual in possession.
If United’s start was positive, with an extra body in midfield providing reassurance, then Unai Emry’s Valencia side also had its early moments. First, Pablo Hernández shot from 25 yards on the quarter-hour after Carrick had invited player to strike by failing to close down sufficiently. Then, moments later and Edwin van der Sar flapped at a cross from the left. Roberto Soldado, starting alone up front for the hosts, astonishingly missed a header with the goal at his mercy.
United’s first chance came from Berbatov’s brilliance; the Bulgarian flicking over Jérémy Mathieu and enabling Nani to cross only for Anderson to flick a left footed shot wide under pressure.
Yet neither side was able to string enough passes together to build any sense of momentum with the match settling into a midfield stalemate. Indeed, both sides were guilty of being wasteful in possession during the first half hour.
Pablo, with occasional support from Portuguese fullback Miguel Monteiro, offered Valencia the most promising outlet and the right-sided player had the better of Patrice Evra just before the break but failed to find a colleague when the home side looked certain to score.
Then Valencia’s star Juan Mata – quiet for most of the half – let loose with a stunning shot from 25 yards. Van der Sar palmed away, although the whistle had already gone. United: considered warned.
If Ferguson’s half-time call for United to use more possession wisely was on the mark, then his team finally began to heed the demand. Anderson, Park and Carrick – all wasteful in the first 45 – at last began to use the ball with more intelligence and break beyond United’s midfield.
Yet it was Berbatov who created United’s first chance of the second period, spinning David Navarro and shooting on target, only for César Sanchez to save at the near post. Berbatov needed to, with his closest colleague about 40 yards away.
The bright opening was fleeting though as the teams settled into an unambitious pattern save for the occasional United break forward. If United’s decision to keep things tight made sense against the La Liga leaders, then Valencia’s own lack of ambition exposed Los Che’s false position. This team, without Davids Silva and Villa, is a shadow of its former self.
Until late in the game that is, when ambition finally kicked in.
The chances came at last for the home side, with Manuel Fernandes testing van der Sar with 15 to go, Soldado inches wide from another cross and Mathieu fizzing a ball across United’s area. The Reds lack of minutes in the centre of the park finally began to tell as the home side sought a win its play would only just deserve.
Substitute Hernández almost scored with his initial involvement, first put through by Nani and firing straight at Valencia’s ‘keeper, and then at full stretch hitting the outside of the post.
Then the dénouement, with Hernández superbly finishing United’s lightening quick break. Nani’s run and then substitute Federico Macheda’s smart ball enabled the Mexican to steal away from Navarro with his first touch and hit the net with the second.
“He is a fantastic finisher. He took his goal as if he was shelling a pea, it was so natural to him,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“His pace and his penetration caused them a bit of bother.”
United – 4231 – van der Sar; Rafael (O’Shea 90), Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Fletcher; Nani, Anderson (Hernández 77), Park; Berbatov (Macheda 85).
Possession: Valencia 51% – 49% Man Utd
Attempts: 9 – 8
On target: 6 – 4
Corners: 6 – 3
Fouls: 14 – 8