Copenhagen 1 Manchester United 0: Allback disrupts United's stately progression

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The Independent Online

Zero degrees and zero points for Manchester United in Copenhagen, and they will not welcome the heat that awaits them in Glasgow in three weeks after losing a 100 per cent record and a seemingly unassailable grip on their Champions' League group in the Danish capital.

Qualification for the knockout stage of the European Cup is imperative for Sir Alex Ferguson this season as he seeks atonement for the embarrassment of finishing bottom of a weak group and out of all Continental competition 12 months ago. His mission was not placed in peril when the former Aston Villa striker Marcus Allback pounced in the 73rd minute at the Parken Stadium, but the entry of doubt into Group F will dampen his 20th-anniversary celebrations at Old Trafford this weekend all the same.

With Celtic slumping to defeat in Lisbon while the Danes danced a conga in celebration of their first-ever win in the Champions' League, Ferguson was left with the concern of requiring another victory to seal top place in the group and passage in a tournament in which he cannot afford to fail so early. A draw when he renews hostilities in his home city with Gordon Strachan on 21 November would put United through on a greater head-to-head against Celtic but defeat, combined with a Benfica win over Copenhagen the same night, would leave for a tense affair when the Portuguese arrive at Old Trafford for the deciding game on 6 December.

"We are going to have to focus really strongly on the Celtic game now," said Ferguson, who saw his side edge a scrappy game but lose the productivity that brought them such rewards and acclaim at Bolton on Saturday. "The group is open now. If we beat Celtic we win the group and that is exactly how we are looking at that game now."

Such drama is all so unnecessary but, then again, it is typical United. In such commanding form before kick-off, they had the chances and control here to have made their passage safe, but six changes to the side that produced an exhibition at The Reebok - an extravagant roll call that strangely included the experienced Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand on a night when United were already missing the absent Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville - wrought inevitable disruption and offered Copenhagen a hope they turned into fulfilment.

"You can regret this and that but we put out a team that was easily capable of winning the match. We shouldn't concern ourselves with what team we picked but losing a goal they way we did," Ferguson said. "It was a scrappy match but we controlled most of the game and never looked like conceding until that corner kick came over."

That corner, a dubious decision that allowed Lars Jacobsen to deliver at the second attempt, caused pandemonium inside the visiting penalty area and when Atiba Hutchinson headed into a crowded goalmouth, Allback received the benefit of the bounce to bundle the ball beyond Edwin van der Sar from a yard out. Copenhagen's first goal in Europe this season was to not only change the course of the tie, but the shape of Group F for United, who were denied a stoppage-time equaliser when Cristiano Ronaldo's tap-in was disallowed for offside and finished with 10 men after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer limped off with all three substitutes employed. Thankfully, the Norwegian's injury was a hamstring strain and not a recurrence of the knee problems that had kept him out of the game for two years, as Ferguson had initially feared, but positives were otherwise in short supply.

Wayne Rooney was re-energised by his weekend hat-trick, or perhaps it was P Diddy's pre-match visit to the United team hotel to meet the striker who won an auction to join the rap star in New York at the Beckhams' pre-World Cup party. Either way, he represented United's most prevalent threat on a sodden pitch and despite being on the receiving end of shuddering challenges from Brede Hangeland and the goalkeeper Jesper Christiansen, he tested the Copenhagen goal three times before the interval while his team-mates played a no-risk policy of ball retention rather than adventure around their opponents' area.

The 21-year-old, however, was culpable for wasting his side's clearest opportunity when he headed a deep cross from Gabriel Heinze wide in the 65th minute, while Ronaldo went close with a low shot that took a wild deflection off Hangeland moments later. Those misses were to prove telling when Allback pounced 17 minutes from time.

Though labelled a long-ball team by Ferguson later, a discredit to their display, there was no hiding Danish glee at victory in what had been labelled the biggest game of their 14-year history. "We rode our luck and now we need another miracle to have a chance of staying in Europe," said their manager, Stale Solbakken, who was once declared clinically dead after collapsing with a heart defect. United needno such resurrections, but they must heed their latest wake-up call when they step out at Celtic Park.

Copenhagen (4-4-2): Christiansen; Jacobsen, Hangeland, Gravgaard, Wendt; Silberbauer (Kvist, 71), Linderoth, Norregaard, Bergvold (Berglund, 68); Allback (Thomassen, 89), Hutchinson. Substitutes not used: Gall (gk), Pimpong.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Vidic (Ferdinand, h-t), Silvestre, Heinze (Evra, 80); Fletcher (Scholes, 71), Carrick, O'Shea, Ronaldo; Rooney, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Smith, Richardson, D Jones.

Referee: W Stark (Germany).

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