Ferguson wins tactical battle but Inter survive

Internazionale 0 Manchester United 0
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The Independent Football

Jose Mourinho's gift of a bottle of wine for Sir Alex Ferguson in place of a handshake at the end of the match was designed to transmit a degree of insouciance about the Internazionale manager, even a touch of confidence. In his heart Mourinho will worry that his players will contemplate the return leg at Old Trafford with a fear in their guts, a fear that says they could be utterly blown away.

The Italian champions were very nearly destroyed by Ferguson's men in the first half, played off the park by a team that Mourinho had dared to suggest were not interested in attacking at San Siro. And although Inter clawed their way back into this tie after the break they must believe that on 11 March a lot of pain awaits them. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs running the game. Cristiano Ronaldo attacking down the right wing. And, this time around, 90 minutes of Wayne Rooney.

Leaving Rooney on the bench last night was one of Ferguson's braver choices, and his justification was strange. He said he needed Dimitar Berbatov's height at set-pieces because he had assumed that, in Nemanja Vidic's absence, Jonny Evans would also be unable to play. Last night with the young Irish defender declared fit, Ferguson had been unwilling to change his thinking thus condemning Rooney to 83 minutes of this match on the sidelines.

What damage might have been inflicted on Inter if Rooney had been on from the start? They escaped without conceding a goal before the break and re-organised to some extent after half-time with a team that made more of an impact but they were lucky to go in for half-time still in the tie, let alone the match. When United were at their best, they were much, much better than the Italian side.

Mourinho said that his gift of a bottle of wine – he emphasised its value of "£300" – left for Ferguson at the United hotel on Monday was instead of a handshake at the end of the match. "My dugout is a special dugout because we have a door in the dugout which gives me the chance to leave directly," he said. And thus he took his leave, also blaming the referee for what he considered a pro-United performance.

Excuses, excuses. United's dominance before the break did not rely on a few favourable decisions, instead it demonstrated that the gulf between the best in England and the best in Italy is widening fast.

How will Ferguson have regarded that bottle of wine at reception? With suspicion, no doubt, as he views pretty much everything the opposition do and say when he is playing away in the Champions League. He once famously said that his distrust of this particular country was so deep-rooted that if an Italian waiter told him a dish was pasta he would "check under the sauce to make sure". He evidently places Mourinho in the same category.

Asked whether his team had given the lie to Mourinho's pre-match assertion that United would not attack he scoffed at the gullibility of everyone else who do not realise, like he does, that what "Jose says to you and what he says to his players are two different things". That was Ferguson being generous. Lesser mortals than Mourinho would have been excoriated for daring to suggest that Ferguson's United would not take the game to their opponents.

Even the most partisan locals in San Siro had their breath taken away by United's approach last night. As they passed the ball through Inter's defence, as they stretched a fragile looking four-man midfield, there were collective sighs and groans from the home support. This was not just the European champions in name, this was the European champions in deed too.

How did United not score in the first half? Ronaldo had four good chances to do so before the break. Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung, two of Ferguson's favourites when United find themselves in potentially difficult away grounds, were industrious. But it was Carrick and Giggs who ran the show. Experience and calm from Giggs, who at 35 has seen and done it all before. A midfield general's performance from Carrick.

Let us count the chances they spurned. A header from Ronaldo saved by the excellent Julio Cesar. Another save from the Inter goalkeeper from a Ronaldo free-kick. Yet another header from the winger. On 26 minutes Giggs was played in by Carrick and his shot from the left was saved by Cesar.

Defensive they were not. Mourinho's two strikers Adriano and Zlatan Ibrahimovic only came into the first half as it reached the end. Adriano muscled his way past Ferdinand once and then missed a glorious chance at the start of the second half.

Inter were rocked and Mourinho knew it. At half-time he switched Ivan Cordoba for Nelson Rivas at centre-back and pushed Ibrahimovic to the left to attack John O'Shea who was the only United player to have a nervous start to the game. Mourinho pushed his full-backs Maicon and Davide Santon further forward and tried to deny United space. The ploy worked.

As United's travelling support called for the introduction of Rooney so their team eased their way back into the game. Giggs had a run and shot that was blocked and then came Rooney. He ploughed into a challenge with Dejan Stankovic that made you wonder if this was to be his shortest-ever contribution to a Champions League tie. United finished with a 4-4-2 formation, bravely attacking and they took this first round on points. But no knockout yet.

* United's Darren Fletcher played last night, despite his family having been sujected to a "terrifying" raid by three masked robbers who broke down the front door of their home in Manchester on Monday night. Hayley Grice, his fiancee, was grabbed by the hair and had a knife held to her throat before being forced to hand over her engagement ring. Her mother was also forced at knifepoint to hand over more jewellery and watches.

Internazionale (4-3-1-2): Cesar; Maicon, Rivas (Cordoba, h-t), Chivu, Santon; Zanetti, Cambiasso, Muntari (Cruz, 76); Stankovic; Ibrahimovic, Adriano (Balotelli, 77). Substitutes not used: Toldo (gk), Maxwell, Figo, Burdisso.

Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Ronaldo, Fletcher, Carrick, Giggs, Park (Rooney, 83); Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Nani, Scholes, F Da Silva, Gibson, Tevez.

Referee: LM Cantalejo (Spain).

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The direct free-kicks Cristiano Ronaldo fired at Internazionale's goal in the first 30 minutes of last night's match.

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