Manchester United 0 Villarreal 0: Ferguson's faith put to test by stuttering United

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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 last night after a wan opening to their defence of the Champions League.

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 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 an hour gone. It was immediately easy to see why Sir Alex Ferguson had insisted on him remaining at Old Trafford, and why he and the faithful had put Ronaldo's summer dalliance with Real Madrid to the backs of their minds. The Portuguese failed to turn the game last night, but with him on the pitch United looked far more threatening.

"He's obviously had a turbulent summer but he'll take great heart from the fans' reaction," said Ferguson. "That was important to him. It showed him what a great club he is at and how loyal they are to him. He has great support and he deserves it. He has given us great moments and fantastic goals."

Of Ronaldo's chances of starting on Sunday at Stamford Bridge Ferguson said: "This was his first game back. He's done very well but it's a big ask to think about Sunday."

If it was anticipated that Ronaldo would start on the bench the presence of Nemanja Vidic alongside him was a surprise. The Serb was omitted to give Evans a run ahead of Sunday's game for which Vidic is suspended.

Ferguson gave himself a second option as Gary Neville also started with a view to his playing right-back at Chelsea and Wes Brown, among the subs last night, moving to centre-half. Dimitar Berbatov was absent last night but Ferguson said he "hoped" the Bulgarian would be fit for Sunday's match.

Villarreal, who have only the moderately taxing trip to Numancia to face at the weekend, left Marcos Senna and Santi Carzorla, two of Spain's Euro 2008 winners, on the bench but included Robert Pires. The former Arsenal player saw plenty of the ball but while Villarreal were neat in possession they lacked penetration. That said their only effort of note, after 59 minutes, could have won the game. 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.

By then Ronaldo was already stripped to play. His arrival woke up the somnolent crowd and energised the home team. 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, the first shot after four. United raised the tempo and, for the first time, Villarreal's defence creaked. Twice United almost scored.

With 19 minutes remaining Ronaldo released Wayne Rooney, he squared, the pass a touch too heavy, to Carlos Tevez. The Argentine did well to gather the ball and roll it past Diego Lopez but the delay enabled Gonzalo Rodriguez to perform an athletic goalline clearance. Eleven minutes later Ronaldo, having gone close with a header himself, delivered the cross from which Evans headed against the base of the far post.

There had been little such excitement prior to Ronaldo's appearance. With Villarreal defending the 18-yard line in numbers United were most dangerous from range, Nani and Tevez testing Diego Lopez. When United got closer they found defenders in their way, Edmilson blocking Park Ji-Sung's shot and Angel Lopez getting in the way of a Darren Fletcher header. The clearest chance was the first. 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.

United needed a lucky break, but it was the visitors whom fortune favoured as, with the interval looming, United were denied a penalty. Park, breaking into the box, was tripped by Joan Capdevila. Wolfgang Stark gave a goal-kick.

"A clear penalty kick, but it wasn't our day. We made a lot of good chances, we played really good football," said Ferguson. Somewhat unrealistically he added: "There was a lot to be pleased about in the performance, we could have won by four or five goals."

It was the first time United had failed to win in 12 home Champions League games. The last team to deny them? Villarreal in 2005. That season United went out at the group stage.

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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