Antonio Valencia suffered a horrific broken left leg as Manchester United struggled to break down a stubborn Rangers at Old Trafford. The Ecuadorian winger suffered the injury on the hour as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side failed to score for the first time this season, leaving the Reds disappointed on Champions League matchday one.
Ferguson made 10 changes to the side that drew with Everton on Saturday as the manager sought to use his full squad against the Scottish champions. Arguably it proved too many with United lacking inspiration against a team that rarely ventured out of its own half.
“The criticism will be that I didn’t play a strong team but I think I had a strong team,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“People forget I played seven or eight of them in the Charity Sheild – I thought it was a really strong team.
“We need ten points to qualify and our home record has been very good over the years. That’s one point and now we need nine more from five games.
“If we’d won the game everybody would have said we deserved it but we didn’t make any great chances. Most of the chances were from outside the box from Darron Gibson so we have to give credit to Rangers for that.”
Indeed, with Scholes rested United looked to a central midfield pairing of Darron Gibson and Darren Fletcher to provide a creative spark. It failed to come, with Gibson in particular guilty of shirking his big chance in the United side.
But if United’s midfield fell flat then there was understandable cause in the second half with the shock of Valencia’s injury. The winger needed oxygen after an horrific broken left leg just above the ankle. United’s players looked visibly shocked as the 25-year-old winger was taken from the field on a stretcher.
Yet United offered little in the previous 60 minutes either, with Rangers’ players camped deep in their own half save for the occasional foray forward. After all, it was United’s responsibility to break the away side down. In that respect the Reds conspicuously failed.
Not that United fell short of opportunities, with Gibson testing McGregor from range within the opening quarter-hour. Then Wayne Rooney, partnered by Javier Hernández in attack, tried to pass to his Mexican colleague when shooting may have been the better option minutes later.
Still, none of United’s midfielders seemed willing to run beyond the ball, let alone playing between the lines, with Gibson often guilty of unimaginative and sometimes lax distribution. On this evidence Ferguson has not found the absent Paul Scholes’ successor just yet.
At times this was attritional football at its very worst, with Rangers’ lone striker Kenny Miller often 40 yards from his nearest colleague. Chris Smalling, on his full début, and Rio Ferdinand, returning from long-term injury, rarely had to break sweat as United monopolised possession.
Indeed, captain-for-the-night Ferdinand increasingly spent more time in midfield as United sought the breakthrough in the second period. Ryan Giggs, on for the stricken Valencia, and then Michael Owen were introduced to little avail.
Gibson, who too often chose to shoot wildly from range, went close from 25 yards just after the break as Rangers successfully kept United at arm’s length. Deploying five at the back and four in front, Rangers offered possibly the most defensive formation ever seen at Old Trafford.
But United failed to find the opening, with Park Ji-Sung tucking inside and Valencia – before the sickening injury – unable to get beyond Rangers’ full-backs.
As United pressed forward in the second period Rangers dared to venture outside their own half and the Scottish side had a decent shout for a penalty as Smalling clipped Kirk Broadfoot’s ankle inside the area.
It was perhaps the visitors only half chance as the game petered out to a disappointing draw.
“Rangers came here and set out their stall to defend and you have to respect that,” said the returning Ferdinand.
“They did what they came to do. We had a few shots from outside the box but our final ball wasn’t good enough. It’s frustrating, we knew how they’d play but we couldn’t break them down.
“We passed the ball from side to side but didn’t really get through them.”
In that United will recall six Premier League matches plus the FA Cup third round where the side lost in failing to score last season. This time the result isn’t calamitous but the lack of inspiration from United’s midfield is palpable.
Shame then that the club failed to do anything to address the problem this summer. Even more sickening for the knowledge that one of United’s better players of the past year – Valencia – will surely miss much of the coming season.
United: Kuszczak; Ferdinand, Brown, Smalling, Fabio Da Silva (Evans 75), Park Ji-Sung (Owen 75), Fletcher, Valencia (Giggs 63), Gibson; Rooney, Hernandez.
Man-of-the-match: Darren Fletcher
Possession: United 54% – 46% Rangers
Attempts: 15 – 3
On target: 7 – 0
Corners: 3 – 0
Fouls: 16 – 10