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