Bleak for United as Manchester derby looms

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The Independent Online

Rarely has a Manchester derby looked a more likely shoot-out between title contenders. Rarely have two sides less befitted such a billing.

For Manchester City, wounded yesterday by a desperate kind of disappearance from the European stage, there was more than a crumb of comfort as Sunday's opposition completed their own group stage in a familiarly drab way.

Manchester United's second successive defeat since qualifying last month did no justice to their manager's 200th game in elite European competition. But it did bear out why City believe their strike force can cause their neighbours trouble three days from now.

Sir Alex Ferguson began the game from the relative warmth of the stand, but even from that distance his team's defence looked discomfited. The game's only significance was the opportunity it offered to restore Wayne Rooney's match fitness and United's rearguard some credibility before Sunday. Rooney looked enterprising enough but the defence did not. It is the high ball into their penalty area which is troubling United, and which will exercise the manager's mind a fair bit before the visit to the Etihad.

This was not a good night for Tom Cleverley, who was replaced by Paul Scholes and marched straight to the dressing room just before the break. Ryan Giggs lacked his customary light touch, too. Only as half-time loomed did United threaten.

The Cluj goalkeeper Mario Felgueiras made an improbably sharp save with his hand whilst on his knees on the goalline from Danny Welbeck. Then Rooney's clipped effort – the first half's only object of beauty – was flipped over the bar.

But Cluj hit back after the break. First Rui Pedro threatened, then Scholes's error in the 55th minute allowed the Romanian side to secure the lead as Luis Alberto unleashed a 30-yard shot into David de Gea's top left corner.

United managed over 20 attempts on goal to the visitors' nine but they never looked like denting the opposition. Their football lacked tempo and urgency, as it has throughout the campaign, and their final ball was poor.

A bleak night, then, which bodes ill for the knockout phase – when United will not be gifted such a generous stream of opposition – and promises little for Sunday's domestic engagement.