Sometimes in defeat Sir Alex Ferguson is angry, sometimes he is phlegmatic.
On Tuesday night, after Manchester United's 2-1 loss to Bayern Munich, he seemed perplexed. For 15 years Ferguson has been drumming into his charges the need to keep possession in European football. Ever since the ill-fated 1994-95 campaign, when United were thrashed in Barcelona, beaten in Gothenberg and held at Galatasaray, Ferguson has instilled in his players the awareness that the Champions League is not the Premier League, if you give the ball away it does not come back immediately, especially away from home.
On Tuesday United gave it away continuously. Passes were over-hit, under-hit or mis-directed. Wrong options were chosen. Faced with Bayern's high-tempo pressing, United too often played the ball long to an isolated Wayne Rooney. "Right from minute one the possession wasn't to our standard," Ferguson said. "It's hard to explain because it is something we pride ourselves on."
There was an early incident which may have been influential, when United had tried to keep the ball and were nearly undone. Darren Fletcher, on the edge of his own box, played a tight pass square to Michael Carrick, who was not expecting it and swiftly played an even tighter ball, across goal, to Nemanja Vidic. He was mugged by Mark van Bommel who, fortunately for United, chose to pass rather than shoot and the attack broke down.
In the aftermath of the incident there was a lot of arm-waving and pointing from United players, as if to say, "We're ahead, don't take risks." However, with their defence pushed back it was near-impossible to keep possession without such gambles so they resorted to launching hopefully towards Rooney who, outnumbered, was too often judged to have fouled his opponent.
"We'd usually try and catch the opposition on the counter-attack but we didn't keep the ball anywhere near as well as we are capable of," Ryan Giggs said. "We gave the ball away far too cheaply."
Edwin van der Sar added: "Every time the ball went forward, and Wayne had a little nudge with the defender, the game got stopped. So we couldn't really get into our game."
The goalkeeper was one of the few United players to emerge with credit, making a string of saves. "I was busier than I usually am," he said. "I had a few shots to save. You would prefer to have a quieter night but that is what I get paid for. We had a great start but after that I don't think we played the football that we are normally capable of in Europe. We were quite comfortable in the first half but in the second I had a lot more to do.
"People's expectations of us are so high they were expecting us to win and that is OK. We share those high expectations. We should have done much better. Now we have to pick ourselves up and refocus for the game against Chelsea on Saturday."
While United will be without Rooney, Bayern hope to be back at full strength for the second leg next Wednesday. Arjen Robben should be restored to the team and their other recent injury victims, Franck Ribéry and Martin Demichelis, will be sharper for having played on Tuesday.
However, like United Bayern have a crucial match this weekend, at Schalke 04, the club who replaced them at the top of the Bundesliga last weekend. Robben is likely to play. "I think he could have played against United too, actually," admitted coach Louis van Gaal. "He trained on the day of the game and there was no problem."
Van Gaal was not taking Bayern's progress to the semi-finals, for the first time since lifting the trophy in 2001, for granted as United have an away goal, but he warned Ferguson his team were very capable of scoring away goals of their own.
"We have always scored away in the Champions League this season: Three at Haifa, one in Bordeaux, four against Juventus and two against Fiorentina. That is a lot of goals away from home so we can have a bit of faith."
But United's Fletcher insisted: "We fancy ourselves against anyone at Old Trafford. Bayern are a good side but after a disappointing result we always seem to respond."Reuse content