Man United 0 Villarreal 0: Ferguson's faith tested by United's stuttering opening

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The Independent Online

More bad news for Uncle Sam's beleaguered financial system. The stock of the soccer team now effectively sponsored by the US government fell slightly after the Champions League holders failed to begin their defence with a win.

Manchester United, whose sponsors, AIG, are now 80 per cent owned by the US Federal Reserve bank following yesterday's $85bn (£47bn) bail-out, were held at home by an organised but under-strength Villarreal team. United hit the post late on, through Jonny Evans but only after Villarreal, who deserved their point, had done the same.

In other news Manchester United fans still love Cristiano Ronaldo. The "want-away star" was cheered to the rafters when he rose from the bench with a hour gone. It was immediately easy to see why Sir Alex Ferguson had insisted on keeping him, and why he and the faithful had put Ronaldo's summer dalliance with Real Madrid to the backs of their minds. He failed to turn the game last night, but with him on the pitch United looked far more threatening.

It was anticipated that Ronaldo would start on the bench for United. Less expected was the presence of Nemanja Vidic alongside him. The Serb appeared to be omitted to give Evans a match ahead of Sunday's game at Stamford Bridge for which Vidic is suspended. This underlined the high regard Ferguson has for Evans as John O'Shea, a more experienced central defender, was left on the bench. Ferguson was not committing himself though as Gary Neville also started, presumably with a view to considering playing the right-back at Chelsea and moving Wes Brown, among the subs last night, to centre-half at the weekend. With Dimitar Berbatov not fit to make his United Champions League debut Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez were paired in attack.

Villarreal's team was even more surprising. They only have the moderately taxing trip to Numancia to face at the weekend but nevertheless left Marcos Senna and Santi Carzorla on the bench. Robert Pires was fit to start, at the ground on which he won the title as an Arsenal player in 2002.

There were few empty seats when the match began and those present watched United endure a frustrating first-half. Villarreal were neat in possession but lacking in penetration. Their only shot of note in the half was from an impossibly tight angle by Pires shortly before the half-hour.

When Villarreal lost possession they defended the 18-yard line in numbers, focusing on blocking the route to goal rather than pressurising the man on the ball. This meant Diego Lopez was mostly tested from range, the goalkeeper spilling a drive from Nani, which was hacked to safety by his defence, and turning a 20-yard Tevez effort aside. Diego Lopez came and failed to reach Owen Hargreaves' seventh-minute corner and Rio Ferdinand, surprised as the ball fell to him unmarked and six yards out, failed to hit the target. It was shaping up to be one of those games when a lucky break is needed, but it was the visitors whom fortune favoured as, with the break looming, United were denied a penalty. Park Ji-Sung, breaking into the box, was tripped by Joan Capdevila. Referee Wolfgang Stark gave a goal-kick.

Villarreal, with Pires now playing in the hole, kept United comfortably at bay after the resumption which led, inevitably, to a man with a diamond earstud stripping off his tracksuit to the loudest cheer of the night. Before Ronaldo could enter the fray, however, Villarreal should have taken the lead. Pires and Santi Carzorla, who came on at the break, combined to release Angel Lopez on the right. With the side of his heel Guille Franco turned the right-back's low cross past Edwin van der Sar, and onto the inside of the far post.

Enter, to roars of acclaim, Ronaldo. As everyone knows, he would have preferred to have been playing BATE Borisov in the Santiago Bernabeu, but he applied himself to the United cause with gusto. The first stepover came after a minute on the pitch, the first shot after four

Ronaldo's arrival, woke up the somnolent crowd and energised the home team. United raised the tempo and, for the first time, Villarreal's defence creaked. With 19 minutes remaining Ronaldo released Rooney, he squared to Tevez who rolled the ball past Diego Lopez, only for Gonzalo Rodriguez to perform an athletic goalline clearance. Eleven minutes later Ronaldo, having gone close himself, delivered the cross from which Evans headed against the post of the far post. The ball bounced clear and, for the time in four years these teams had drawn nil-nil.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Park (Ronaldo, 61),Hargreaves (Anderson, 61), Fletcher, Nani; Rooney, Tevez (Giggs, 80). Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Brown, Vidic, O'Shea.

Villarreal (4-4-1-1): Diego Lopez; Angel Lopez, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Diego Godin, Capdevila; Cani (Santi Carzorla, h-t), Edmilson, Eguren, Pires (Ibagaza, 66); Mati Fernandez; Guille Franco (Joseba Llorente, 76). Substitutes not used: Viera (gk), Javi Venta, Senna, Fabricio Fuentes.

Referee: W Stark (Germany).

Remaining group stage fixtures: Celtic: 30 Sept: Villarreal (a); 21 Oct: Manchester Utd (a); 5 Nov: Manchester Utd (h); 25 Nov: Aalborg (a); 10 Dec: Villarreal (h). Manchester Utd: 30 Sept: Aalborg (a); 21 Oct: Celtic (h); 5 Nov: Celtic (a); 25 Nov: Villarreal (a); 10 Dec: Aalborg (h).

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