With one kick, Wayne Rooney took Manchester United into the knockout stages and to the brink of progressing as Group C winners last night, tucking home a penalty with just minutes remaining at Ibrox.
Rooney was booed throughout his first full game since September, an absence necessitated by an ankle problem but which also included his falling-out with Sir Alex Ferguson over his contract extension.
The striker's chance arrived in the 87th minute when Steven Naismith caught Fabio in the face in the penalty area. Ferguson described it as "an assault" while his counterpart Walter Smith claimed it was not worthy of a penalty – no wonder referees have a hard time north of the border.
Until that point, Rooney had laboured, snatching at several opportunities, with only a header that caught the top of the bar proving to be a genuinely dangerous contribution.
But despite all the attention on him, with just one goal, also a penalty, so far this season, Rooney ran straight for the ball when Swiss referee Massimo Busacca pointed to the spot. The United striker ignored the potential consequences of failure and confidently struck his shot past Allan McGregor to secure a vital victory and condemn Rangers to the Europa League.
Valencia now have to win at Old Trafford on 7 December to stop United going through on top, giving Ferguson crucial leeway ahead of back-to-back Premier League matches against Arsenal and Chelsea.
This may have been far from spectacular but United, who dominated possession throughout at Ibrox, have not conceded in their five Champions League matches so far and Rangers never really looked like ending that run.
Spluttering a little maybe, but United are now unbeaten in 28 matches and Ferguson feels they are growing in momentum and have the ability to take on the Champions League and the Premier League like any United team of the past two decades.
"We still want to win the group. We've done it time and time again over the years, playing our strongest team and then having a difficult game on Saturday or Sunday and we're faced with that again," Ferguson said. "I don't see it as a problem, it's a challenge, we've got to show we can handle these things and we'll be ok with that.
"We've not played well in the last two games but there have been occasions when we've played exceptionally well. There have been good performances and it's not all been black, our last two performances have been well short of what we expect of our players but we can't play well in every game. We're looking for better rhythm to our game because when we get a rhythm we are a very good team and we're searching for that a little bit at the moment."
Their evening could have been much more straightforward had Dimitar Berbatov been awarded a penalty when he went down under a Steve Davis challenge with just a few minutes gone. United controlled possession from the start but struggled to create decent openings and Rangers threatened when Kirk Broadfoot flicked on a Davis free-kick and Kenny Miller, now 15 Champions League matches without a goal, saw his header drop the wrong side of the post. Rooney had similar feelings when he was picked out by a cross from Fabio and his header bounced away off the bar.
After the restart, Berbatov found Rooney on the edge of the area and with one touch, the forward sent Michael Carrick scampering through only for the midfielder to shoot straight at McGregor. Berbatov also failed to test McGregor after skipping around Broadfoot.
Fabio continues to split opinion but he deserves credit for appearing on the end of a cross with just a few minutes left. Challenging for a header, he felt the full force of Naismith's boot in his face and, despite bizarre protests from Rangers, it was a clear penalty. Rooney stroked it in and took another step towards redemption.
Rangers, meanwhile, can try to redeem themselves in the Europa League – but Smith is far from optimistic unless he is given funds to spend in January. "If we don't get any help in the January transfer window we could have a struggle again because we're right down to the bare bones," the Rangers manager said.
Rangers (5-4-1): McGregor; Davis, Whittaker, Broadfoot, Weir, Foster; Naismith, Hutton (Beattie, 88), McCulloch, Weiss (Fleck, 79); Miller. Substitutes not used Alexander (gk), Loy, Perry, Wylde.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Smalling, Evans, Fabio; Nani (Obertan, 77), Carrick, Scholes (Anderson, 67), Giggs; Berbatov (Hernandez, 76), Rooney. Substitutes not used Amos (gk), Evra, Brown, Macheda.
Referee M Busacca (Switzerland).
Man of the match McGregor.
Match rating 3/10.
Results so far Man Utd 0-0 Rangers, Bursaspor 0-4 Valencia; Valencia 0-1 Man Utd, Rangers 1-0 Bursaspor; Rangers 1-1 Valencia, Man Utd 1-0 Bursaspor; Valencia 3-0 Rangers, Bursaspor 0-3 Man Utd; Rangers 0-1 Man Utd, Valencia 6-1 Bursaspor
Remaining fixtures 7 Dec Man Utd v Valencia, Bursaspor v Rangers
Valencia 6-1 Bursaspor
Valencia demolished a lacklustre Bursaspor to join United in the last 16 after going 4-0 up by half-time. Roberto Soldado scored twice to keep alive the Spaniards' hopes of winning the group.Reuse content