Manchester United sealed top spot in Champions League Group C after a draw with Valencia at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side came from behind in a match that United could not take for granted. Indeed, while Ferguson’s outfit created nearly 20 chances in the match, loose finishing and slack defending ensured Valencia earned a point.
United started the match seeking a new record for defensive solidity in the competition’s groups stages. The attempt lasted just half an hour, with a genuine risk that United could be knocked off top spot and face one of Europe’s brighter lights in the first knock-out round.
Instead, just a second Anderson goal in more than 100 games for the club sealed United’s point and a potentially easier tie in the next round.
“I think we made a lot of chances and played a lot of good football,until about five minutes after we scored then we just settled,” said Ferguson.
“We tried to see out the game and sometimes that can be dangerous. It’s a psychological thing and of course we had some young defenders there. I had to take Rio off with a hamstring, I couldn’t take any chances with the game (against Arsenal) next week.”
Ferguson handed a first Champions League start to goalkeeper Ben Amos, chosen ahead of Tomasz Kuszazck in the United net. If Old Trafford had a low-key feel for what was essentially a dead rubber then it was nothing of the sort for the Macclesfield-born stopper, who had made just two Carling Cup appearances previously.
Not that the 20-year-old had anything to do in the opening quarter of the match, with only Anderson striking on goal of any on the pitch. Indeed, the Brazilian, who had scored just once in three years with United, fired tamely at Vicente Guaita in the visitors’ goal when set free. The 23-year-old should have done better.
Moments later and Dimitar Berbatov could have done more when given room 25 yards out. Instead of shooting the Bulgarian chipped behind Park Ji-Sung and the chance was lost.
Not that Valencia was out of the match at all, enjoying the lion’s share of possession in the opening 30, with Amos called to make a smart save at the near post before Ever Banega struck the outside of the youngster’s post.
Aside from – or perhaps because of – the lack of early goals the match had a distinctly flat tone though. Old Trafford’s atmosphere, which is often better on big European nights than domestic fixtures, also suffered for a number of empty seats despite the ‘official’ 74,500 crowd.
Even Berbatov, who scored five times on his last outing, wasted three good chances to shoot or bring in colleagues when well placed.
Meanwhile, his erstwhile striker partner Wayne Rooney produced little until breaking down the left to present Park with a fine chance on the half-hour. The move certainly sparked some life into the former Evertonian.
That the South Korean failed to convert was ruthlessly punished by the visitors seconds later.
Indeed, United was not short in making individual errors in midfield and Michael Carrick, whose form has improved in recent weeks, presented Valencia with the opening goal just after the half hour. The Geordie’s wayward pass was intercepted in midfield and eventually fired home by Pablo Hernández, the winger who so impressed in the teams’ meeting in Spain earlier this season.
Yet Ferguson’s men could not be accused of failing to create chances and
Rooney, in a rare moment of genius, fired against the bar from distance moments later. The 25-year-old has not scored from open play this season but grew into the match as it progressed.
It was the last chance United created in the half as the Reds fell short of the equaliser.
The pattern changed little in the opening minutes of the second half, with United threatening without really testing Guaita.
Again Rooney went close, firing wide on the hour, before Anderson scored score his first goal at Old Trafford in more than three years at the club. Park’s effort was far too hot for Guiata only for the Brazilian to follow in to score the vital equaliser.
But Valencia continued to capitalised on United’s loose defensive play, despite the home site continuing to create chances.
Berbatov twice forced his way into good areas without testing the ‘keeper before Aritz Aduriz shot straight at Amos following substitute Chris Smalling’s error as United held out for the draw.
“It was most important that we finished top of the group, which helps with the draw in a few weeks time,” said captain Nemanja Vidic.
“I was concerned that we didn’t take the chances today and in the end we had a nervous game because obviously we had to draw to be top of the group.
“We had a few young players in the team today and it was good experience for them.
“Whoever we play it will be a hard game. Obviously there are a few sides we’d like to meet later (in the competition).”
United will certainly need to play better in the later stages of the competition. In truth United has been little more than average in the group stages despite the outstanding defensive record.
That the side gave away possession so frequently in midfield – with Carrick, Park and Anderson guilty of 42 misplaced passes between them is not an indicator of a Champions League winning outfit.
Ferguson defended Carrick, despite the Geordie’s culpability for Valencia’s goal. But with Paul Scholes no younger, what chance the Scot might invest in the market during the window?
Elsewhere United’s manager was happier, with the 69-year-old praising his strike pairing of Rooney and Berbatov, who showed glimpses of the understanding that brought seven goals against Blackburn Rovers ten days ago.
“He (Rooney) did very well again tonight. His distribution, leading of the line and work rate was outstanding tonight. He’s getting there quick.
“Berba tonight could have scored another five, he was unlucky with a couple of headers and had another couple of chances.”
United will need both on song if they are to progress further as the competition heats up.
United – 442 – Amos; Rafael Da Silva, Ferdinand (Smalling 50), Vidic, Fabio Da Silva; Nani (Giggs 81), Anderson (Fletcher 89), Carrick, Park Ji-Sung;Berbatov, Rooney.
Valencia – 451 – Guaita; Miguel, Angel Dealbert, Costa, Mathieu; Pablo (Feghouli 81), Albelda, Banega, Ramos Jordi Alba (Mata 67), Dominguez (Isco 54); Aduriz.
Attendance – 74,513
Man of the Match – Anderson
Possession: United 50% – 50% Valencia
Attempts: 17 – 10
On Target: 7 – 5
Corners: 6 – 3
Fouls: 10 – 12
Michael Owen took part in Manchester United’s open training session on Monday but will not feature against Valencia on Champions League matchday six at Old Trafford tomorrow night. The 30-year-old striker has been out of action with a hamstring problem since October but will not be risked as United chase top spot in Group C.
United beat Valencia 1-0 in Spain but a win for Unai Emery’s side will see the Spaniards progress top on goal difference. But Sir Alex Ferguson says he will not rotate his resources despite the Reds facing games against Arsenal and Chelsea in successive weeks during the build up to a hectic Christmas and New Year programme.
Ferguson can choose from a virtually full strength squad, with Paul Scholes also training this week although it is unlikely the midfielder will feature. Jonny Evans and Wes Brown missed out on training Monday and may not feature, alongside long-term injury victims Antonio Valencia and Owen Hargreaves.
However, Wayne Rooney is fit and will start alongside Dimitar Berbatov in United’s attack.
United hasn’t played since the heavy defeat at West Ham United in last week’s Carling Cup tie, although most of the first team has not seen action for more than a week.
“The sensible approach is to avoid the bigger hitters like Real Madrid and Barcelona and Bayern Munich, they are the teams that are number one in their groups at the moment,” Ferguson said.
“We can only do that if we finish top of our group and that’s what we want to do.
“We’d have preferred to have played a game on Saturday. The only advantage we’ve got is that no one gets injured.
“They haven’t played for 10 days. I will play my strongest side tomorrow and then we have six days to prepare for the Arsenal game so it’s OK.”
United remains the only side to not concede in this season’s Champions League and completing the group stages without leaking any further goals will represent a new competition record, although veteran goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar acknowledges the results have much to do with the quality of opposition faced to date.
“We may be through now but we want to get to first spot to avoid any of the big teams in the earlier rounds,” said the United ‘keeper.
“So far we have not played against the biggest teams in the Champions League. Maybe that has something to do with it.
“When you start playing a higher standard of opposition it is going to become more difficult.”
Indeed, Valencia has scored nine times in the last two group fixtures but domestically Emery’s side’s form has been erratic since topping La Liga early in the season. Los Che lost at Real Madrid on Saturday with former Red Cristiano Ronaldo scoring twice. Ferguson says whatever the opposition United will raise its game on Tuesday night.
“In European games, they realise that maybe concentration has got to be 100 percent,” Ferguson added.
“It’s a different atmosphere and a different challenge. All players like to be involved in the European cup. You know that if you win your group you are into that stage of the tournament where it becomes very interesting.”
Meanwhile, Valencia has injury problems ahead of the trip to Old Trafford. Miguel returned as a substitute on Saturday for his first appearance since picking up a thigh injury. However, goalkeeper César Sánchez has made just two appearances since matchday three while his back-up Miguel Ángel Moyà has a torn thigh. David Navarro, Manuel Fernandes, Mehmet Topal and Jérémy Mathieu all miss the tie.
“We’ve got two objectives: the first was to qualify, the second was to finish top of the group,” said Emery.
“We’ve achieved the first and now we’re going for the second. We want to taste victory at a place like this, which would set our stall out and send out a warning sign to the other clubs.
“There are lots of big clubs left in the competition and a good result here would give us confidence for the challenges ahead.”
Valencia – 433 – Guaita; Bruno, Stankevicius, Maduro, R Costa; Albelda, Rodríguez, A Costa; Joaquín, Soldado, Mata.
Subs from: Saúl, Domínguez, Aduriz, Feghouli, Guaita, Dealbert, Stankevičius, Hernández, Banega, Mathieu, Monteiro, T Costa, Moyà, Navarro, Alba.
United – 4-4-2 – van der Sar; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Anderson, Park; Berbatov, Rooney.
Subs from: Kuszczak, Amos, Brown, Fabio, O’Shea, Bébé, Obertan, Scholes, Macheda, Smalling, Evans, Giggs, Hernández, Carrick.
Referee: Pedro Proença (POR)
Assistant referees: Tiago Trigo (POR), Ricardo Santos (POR)
Additional assistant referees: João Ferreira (POR), João Capela (POR)
Fourth official: Paulo Jorge Lourenço Batista (POR)
United – DDWWWL
Valencia – WWDWWL
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
Manchester United will face Valencia in the Champions League on Wednesday without Wayne Rooney, who has succumbed to an ankle injury and did not travel. The problem, which precipitated the striker’s substitution against Bolton Wanderers, will force a change in tactics from Sir Alex Ferguson, who dare not lose to the La Liga leaders.
Rooney’s injury was initially diagnosed as nothing serious by manager Ferguson leading the speculation that the striker has been dropped on the basis of his continuing poor form. Whatever the truth, Ferguson’s thinking for the match has been clarified by his star player’s absence. Always likely to deploy a lone-forward at Mestalla, the Scot no longer has to consider the previously unthinkable – dropping Rooney on form, or using the former Evertonian on the left wing.
Such is Dimitar Berbatov’s form – and turnaround in fortunes – that he will certainly start just his second Champions League fixture in the past ten.
The Scot has put extra store in United’s result against Valencia after the dour stalemate against Rangers at Old Trafford earlier this month. Lose to Valencia tomorrow night and United’s dropped points against the Scottish champions could still prove costly in a group the Reds are supposed to win comfortably.
If Ferguson’s last-minute dash to watch Spain’s ‘other giant’ caught supporters and the media by surprise last Wednesday, there is little doubt how important the Scot now rates the result. United has not failed to qualify from the group stages since the disastrous 2005/6 campaign in which Ferguson’s side lost to both Benfica and Lille.
But if United is to take a point from the trip south then Ferguson’s men will have to do without both Rooney and Ryan Giggs, who is likely to sit out the next fortnight with a hamstring strain. Paul Scholes played the full 90 against Bolton on Sunday and did not travel with Ferguson’s 22-man party. The 35-year-old midfielder rarely completes two matches back-to-back.
With Owen Hargreaves still on the sidelines, Michael Carrick returning to training this week and Anderson short of minutes after a lengthy rehabilitation, Ferguson is short of options in midfield.
Alongside Darren Fletcher, two of Anderson, Darron Gibson or Carrick will come into a three-man central midfield. Park Ji-Sung is most likely to take Giggs’ role on the left flank, although Bébé travelled with the squad. Berbatov will start as United’s lone-striker.
United supporters will have much to ponder about United’s creativity in Scholes’ absence, with Park likely to reprise his role as the Reds’ ‘defensive attacking midfielder’ and Nani the essential outlet.
Ferguson also has concerns about Rio Ferdinand, who sat out the draw with Bolton as a precaution, but has completed just 90 minutes of first team football this season. The 32-year-old England captain is likely to partner Nemanja Vidic at the heart of a United defence that has conceded seven times on the road this season.
“It is a big concern conceding so many away goals,” captain Vidic said.
“We have lost too many goals in away games and we have to stop that. We haven’t given that many goals away in the past. We have always looked strong and haven’t given teams so many chances.
“We have to be much better in Spain. Valencia are in decent form and won their first [Champions League] match 4-0 and are now top of La Liga. That shows how well they are playing at the moment.”
“At Bolton, there was one goal conceded from a set-piece and one came after a corner, which is not good. We are giving teams too many opportunities and they are taking them. We have to work on the small details and keep coming again.
“It is hard to explain what is going wrong. It is not the true Manchester United. It does have to be sorted out very quickly.”
Starting at Mestalla on Wednesday night, although with Jonny Evans and John O’Shea seemingly make the worst fist of a good opportunity this season, nothing is guaranteed on that front.
Meanwhile, Valencia will seek to extend United’s barren run in Europe against Spanish opposition. Ferguson’s side has won only once in Spain and failed to score on the last three visits. Indeed, United has faced some tough fixtures against the port side.
The clubs first met in the 1982/83 UEFA Cup, with Valencia winning 2-1 at Mestalla following a goalless draw in Manchester two weeks earlier. The sides met in the Champions League in 1999/2000, United winning 3-0 at home and drawing 0-0 away, with Valencia and not United making the final. The following season Valencia again went all the way with the sides playing out two draws in the group stage.
With the club due to move into a new 75,000-seater Nou Mestalla in the north-west of the city in 2011, this may be the last chance for United supporters to expeirience the intimidating Mestalla atmosphere, with stands close to the pitch and steeply banked seats rising high above the pitch.
Despite the club’s stature, Los Che are Spain’s surprise league leaders this season, with Unai Emery’s side seemingly not regressing after the sale of David Silva and David Villa to Manchester City and Barcelona for a combined £50 million fee. Emery’s side play an attacking brand of football with wingers Juan Manuel Mata and Joaquín Sánchez providing pace and width.
It’s a threat that Ferguson has clearly in mind.
Valencia – 433 – César Sánchez; Bruno, Navarro, R Costa, Alba; Rodríguez, Topal, Fernandes; Joaquín, Soldado, Mata. Subs from: Albelda, Domínguez, Aduriz, Feghouli, Guaita, Dealbert, Stankevičius, Hernández, Banega, Mathieu, Monteiro, T Costa, Moyà.
Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Amos, Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, O’Shea, Evans, Rafael, Brown, Anderson, Bebe, Nani, Carrick, Gibson, Fletcher, Park, Hernández, Berbatov, Macheda, Owen.
Referee: Viktor Kassai
Assistant referees: Gabor Eros & Tibor Vamos
Fourth official: Ferenc Bede
Additional assistant referees: Mihaly Fabian & Tamas Bognar
Valencia – WWWWDW
United – WDDWWD
Manchester United faces, arguably, the toughest fixture this season, away at La Liga leaders Valencia on Wednesday night. Following the draw against Rangers, United is under pressure to secure at least a point at the Mestalla. It may provoke Sir Alex Ferguson to change the 4-4-2 system he has mostly deployed this season.
Wayne Rooney, seemingly perpetually out-of-form and with a continuing ankle problem, will be fit to play against Valencia on Wednesday, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, although it seems the Scot may yet choose to deploy his star striker on the left of the Reds’ attack.
With United suffering defensive problems this season, caused in part at least by the lack of a traditional holding midfielder, Ferguson may revert to a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation on Wednesday, with Rooney the most likely sacrifice given Dimitar Berbatov’s outstanding form.
In midfield Ferguson could bring in one of Darron Gibson, Park Ji-Sung or Anderson as an attacking option, or bolster the defensive side with a fit-again Michael Carrick in something closer to a 4-3-2-1 system.
What would you do on Wednesday?
Valencia’s Las Fallas ‘torch’ festival ended Thursday with the ritual bonfire, la cremà, of giant papier maché statues. For those familiar with Spain, the figures are common at Easter, although Valencia’s festival is an ancient pagan event. This year’s ‘participants’ included a giant Cristiano Ronaldo, complete with mirror.
Got Ronaldo spot on though…