Football: United's caution pays a dividend

European Cup: English champions return to Old Trafford with a clean sheet after Monaco fail to break deadlock in tactical stalemate: Monaco 0 Manchester United 0
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The Independent Online
IT WAS not much of a match but Sir Bobby Charlton's grin, as he stepped on to the Stade Louis II pitch late last night, said everything about the result. He knew that his beloved Manchester United had just taken another big step towards reaching their first European Cup final since he held the trophy aloft 30 years ago.

Charlton had just watched United eschew their stylish passing game for a night of dogged defence. Invited to play on a car park, they drew in the wagons and parked in pole position for a place in the European Champions' Cup semi-finals.

Monaco cannot be ruled out, they have talent and one away goal at Old Trafford in a fortnight could break United's hearts. But last night United saw off their attacking stars one by one. First Victor Ikpeba, Africa's player of the year was withdrawn; then the Algerian playmaker, Ali Benarbia; then the competition's top-scorer, Thierry Henry. United remained equal to whatever Monaco's coach, Jean Tigana, could throw at them.

United, who again avoided a single yellow card, were disciplined and determined. When they did occasionally err, as Ronnie Johnsen did midway through the first-half, the commanding Peter Schmeichel was safety itself.

The English champions might even have won this quarter-final first leg tie through a Nicky Butt header but Fabian Barthez, the French national goalkeeper, denied him.

But United did not leave with a spring in their step, they left with a limp. Alex Ferguson said eight players were suffering from calf injuries due to the hard and rutted pitch. They included David Beckham, Teddy Sheringham, Gary Neville and Denis Irwin, who could not even finish the match. Irwin will miss Saturday's Premiership match at Sheffield Wednesday and he may not be the only absentee. The pitch may not have looked too bad on television but that is because the holes had been filled with earth and painted green.

"This is a good result for us, particularly as I was not prepared to take any risks with that pitch," he said. "I couldn't trust the surface. It is a terrible surface, it is very hard to create anything.

"We defended so very well, there was a lot of discipline. We we did not do anything stupid. In the past we have probably been a bit naive and gone full throttle to try and win the leg." He added: "We have only completed one part of the job and I would have liked that away goal."

Tigana said: "I think our chances are still 50-50; we haven't conceded a goal. We have a lot of pace and are capable of getting a result in Manchester. We play better away from home."

United, who lined up as expected, had begun slowly. Their concern about the pitch meant they abandoned their customary quick-passing style to play a more direct game. That resulted in their ceding possession as Sheringham and Andy Cole, both man-marked and poorly supported, were unable to hold the ball. United thus spent much of the opening half defending in depth.

Twice the home side managed spells of pressure. John Collins, busy throughout, prompted the first with a quick-footed dribble into the box, which was halted by a crucial tackle by Irwin. The cool Irishman then denied Sylvain Legwinski's header from a corner after Willy Sagnol had brought a diving save from Schmeichel with a 25-yard shot.

Then United's concentration slipped twice. Eight minutes from the break Legwinski rose unchallenged to Philippe Leonard's cross but skimmed his header wide. Then Johnsen, fooled by the bounce, misjudged a header and presented the ball to Henry. To the Norwegian's relief, Schmeichel spread himself quickly to parry the shot.

After a break enlivened by the United fans' disenchanted response to the playing of an Oasis song, the second period continued in similar vein but United were now tighter, and the next chance fell to them after 62 minutes. A long throw from Gary Neville bounced over both the challenging Sheringham and his marker and Butt launched himself at the ball bringing an athletic save from Barthez.

United settled back into defence but a reshuffle, prompted by the departure of Irwin, briefly disturbed them and Martin Djetou, from 25 yards, and Robert Spehar, with foot and head, tested Schmeichel. The captain was more ruffled, though, by the Spanish referee who penalised him for not releasing the ball within the stipulated six seconds. With every United outfield player in the wall, Leonard hit the tapped free-kick straight at Phil Neville. It was symptomatic of United's resilience and Monaco's lack of penetrative nous.

Monaco (3-5-2): Barthez; Konjic, Dumas, Djetou; Sagnol, Legwinski, Benarbia (Carnot, 74), Collins, Leonard; Ikpeba (Spehar, 62), Henry (Lefevre, 78). Substitutes not used: Pignol, Da Costa, Christanval, Porato (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Berg, Irwin (McClair, 65); Beckham, Scholes, P Neville, Butt; Cole, Sheringham. Substitutes not used: May, Clegg, Solskjaer, Thornley, Casper, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: M Diaz Vega (Sp).