Manchester United left it very, very late to secure a draw against CSKA Moscow at Old Trafford and with it qualification to the last 16 of the Champions League. United, never in front in the tie, had to come from 3-1 down in the Group B clash against a poor Russian side.
Sir Alex Ferguson, extolling the virtues of stand in central defenders Wes Brown and Jonny Evans this week, watched in horror as United’s defence, missing the injured Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, crumbled in the first half.
The opening goal came on 25 minutes, scored by Alan Dzagoev following a neat one-two. Youngster Dzagoev, too quick for Evans, fired into the roof of the neat with a finish not dissimilar to that by Fernando Torres’ 10 days ago. The embattled Ferdinand this time thankful he was not on the pitch.
But the goal sparked United into life and four minutes later Michael Owen, who had already missed two good chances, turned to slot past the helpless Igor Akinfeev from close range.
United’s central defenders left another huge gap to allow CSKA back into the game minutes later. Milos Krasic scoring to put the Russians into a shock half-time lead.
Ferguson, hairdryer still warm, could do little as Vasili Berezutsky took advantage of poor marking by Federico Macheda to head in from a set piece just seconds after the restart.
Darren Fletcher, returning after injury, found himself in the book for diving to add insult to injury. Replays showed the Scot felled in the box following a good turn and a clear penalty denied. Ferguson called the decision “one of the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime” post match.
United, searching for a route back into the game, brought off the disappointing Nani for new father Wayne Rooney, with Fabio making way for Patrice Evra. And Frenchman Gabriel Obertan, on for Macheda, again impressed with his penetration and running.
With the tempo increased, United forced a string of fine saves from Akinfeev. The ‘keeper, linked with a move to United in recent weeks, once against showed why he is CSKA’s most highly prized asset.
With just five minutes to go Paul Scholes headed in from a Gary Neville’s cross to bring United back into the match. The full-back, who caused CSKA problems all night, crossed for the midfielder to score into Akinfeev’s top-right hand corner.
In typical United fashion the home side equalised with moments remaining. Valencia’s wickedly deflected effort, following neat work by Rooney, left Akinfeev with no chance to ensure United maintained a 22-match unbeaten home run.
“We were absolutely fantastic in terms of our desire to win the match and were unlucky at times in the game,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“Their goalkeeper made some fantastic saves, we hit the post and missed a lot of other chances. And we also had a stonewall penalty turned down.
“But we didn’t make it easy for ourselves and it became an uphill fight. That’s maybe not a bad thing though because it’s a reminder that when you leave yourself open in European football it can be very dangerous.
“Their first two goals were soft goals to lose and the third was unbelievable – a free header at the back post on a set-piece. That’s the first goal we’ve lost on a set-piece for a year; it’s a good reminder for us about how we need to defend those situations, especially as we’ll face a lot of set-pieces on Sunday at Chelsea.”
But the manger must restore confidence to United’s brittle defence if his team is to take anything from Sunday’s trip to Stamford Bridge. Evans and Brown, likely to feature against Chelsea, will take little confidence from this game.