Van Persie spares United's blushes after Cluj punish defensive frailties


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The Independent Online

At the King Matthias statue in the main square here, a tinny version of the song about the visitors had blared out on continuous loop all yesterday. "Strong in defence, united in attack, United are the greatest football team…" The team fulfilled that prophecy only in parts last night, though happily for their manager, the immediate benefits of an attacking partnership to die for masked a dysfunctional defence which looked anything but strong.

The combination of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, which produced the goals that leave United now needing only four points from their double-header with Braga to go on, suggests that the two will prosper together – and perhaps in a way which will return the Englishman to be the provider of the provider he once was for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Seven goals in as many starts for the Dutch beneficiary of Rooney's hard night's work in the deep also suggest that the arguments about resale values of 29-year-olds are redundant sometimes. The defence is something else, though Sir Alex Ferguson had refused to change the back four whose weekend capitulation to Tottenham has left him in such a black mood. The six changes from Spurs were all in front of defence, including the pairing of Rooney and Van Persie in the same starting line, Jabier Hernandez making three in the striking department.

That meant Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra were asked to make up in width what that line-up, without a wing player, lacked.

But the defensive problems that Spurs exploited were soon in evidence again, with Rio Ferdinand, Evra and Rafael all offenders. Ferdinand's poor control forced him to concede a hasty early corner, which skimmed off the top of Darren Fletcher's head, narrowly wide. Then Rafael's failure to collect a ball comfortably within his ambit caused more trouble, before the latest manifestation of what has been the sad unravelling of Evra as a top-class defender over the past two years.

Losing touch with a jet-propelled Gareth Bale is one thing but allowing the 27-year-old Senegalese Modou Sougou to escape and leave you for dead on the left touchline is another matter. In the Romanians' first meaningful attack Sougou seized on the fine 30-yard crossfield pass which Rafael Bastos sent over, raced away and swept in a ball which the Greek striker Pantelis Kapetanos was granted far too much space to slot home, first time.

But after Hernandez was fouled on the left of the area by Bastos, Rooney lifted up a free-kick in the direction of Van Persie and watched it loop off the Dutchman's shoulder over Mario Felgueiras and into the net.

Ferguson's puce face showed his feelings as he marched off at half-time. The second half was only four minutes old when his new strike force delivered again, Rooney lifting a ball from wide on the right flank which Van Persie allowed across his body before tipping it in off his ankle.