Manchester United picked up another three points in Champions League Group B following an understated performance at Old Trafford last night. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men did just about good enough to defeat the German champions, finding the goals when they needed to, with Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov producing star turns. But not before Armin Veh’s Bundesliga winners threatened to cause an upset on Ferguson’s home patch.
United started the match in first gear and rarely moved out of it with a performance that was at frequently sloppy. Nemanja Vidic twice gave away possession in the opening minutes before Patrice Evra matched the Serbian.
The opposition hardly needed any encouragement. Wolfsburg, keeping possession well, threw forward players in the style that saw Veh’s team lead the Bundesliga scoring charts last season. On more than one occasion the German’s forwards Edin Džeko and Grafite made their physical presence tell on Vidic and his partner Rio Ferdinand.
It took a quarter hour before Carrick and Anderson finally began to take control of central midfield, the Brazilian youngster driving forward and winning a free-kick that Rooney drove just wide.
Then came one of the pivotal moments of the night, with Michael Owen – starting ahead of Berbatov – limping off with the groin injury that had threatened to keep him out of the match. The Bulgarian replaced the former-England striker under the gaze of Fabio Capello. And the Berbatov, seemingly sensing his opportunity, finally delivered the kind of all-action performance the media has craved.
Berbatov’s introduction seemed to galvanise United as an attacking force, with some pace finally injected into the game. It was the Bulgarian’s neat flick to Antonio Valencia that led to one of the best openings of the first half. The Ecuadorian shooting wide when he really should have worked the German’s goalkeeper. It’s becoming a common theme.
United then had a goal chalked off – perhaps unfairly – after Carrick released Berbatov, for the Bulgarian to set up Rooney’s tap-in. The Bulgarian was onside, O’Shea was off and the assistant made the wrong call.
As the period wore on the Bulgarian became increasingly influential, setting Carrick free on goal before firing over himself. United created enough chances to go into the break a couple to the good.
But it was Wolfsburg that began the second half brighter, with Zvjezdan Misimović pulling the strings and United offering far too much space. It was no surprise then when the away side took the lead, with some nice interplay on the edge of United’s area. Makoto Hasebe’s cross picking out Džeko at the far post to score the opening goal. Replays showed that the Bosnian was marginally offside but his headed finish was every bit as classy as Wolfsburg’s fans have come to expect.
Attack, attack, attack, demanded the Old Trafford crowd. And within three minutes United was back in it. Ryan Giggs, with an Old Trafford banner demanding his investiture, clipped the Wolfsburg wall with a free-kick and the ball span beyond Diego Benaglio into the net for the Welshman’s 150th United goal.
United continued to create chances – Rooney curling an effort just over and Giggs putting the ball in the net, which was later ruled out for offside.
Then United won the match. Fittingly Berbatov and Giggs created the chance for Carrick – United’s better players on the night. The former Spurs man striking an unerring shot into the top right-hand corner.
“Their goal was a surprise but that’s football,” said Ferguson after the game.
“I thought it was a matter of time before we scored but I think the performance was good, it deserved a win. We always try to win, no matter what the score we always try.”
It was a good summary from Ferguson. United did enough to win. Just. But even when under-performing compared to recent Premier League matches against Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur, his side was able to fashion enough chances to take the game.
Carrick and Berbatov, on-the-other-hand, had an outstanding night. The former Spurs players have suffered more than a little unfair criticism in recent weeks. Two excellent performances will give the fans food for thought, and the manager ever greater options.