Manchester United 3 Celtic 2: Solskjaer and Saha's show of strength quells Celtic uprising

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The Independent Football

Seven years on from their greatest European night of modern times, Manchester United are still making life difficult for themselves and, seven years on, they are still relying on the saving grace of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Another Champions' League match-winner from the old hero of 1999, but if this was billed as a cross-border skirmish there are still greater questions to be asked of United in Europe.

First of all, this was some match: a shock opener from Celtic, two goals from Louis Saha and a brilliant free-kick equaliser by Shunsuke Nakamura before Solskjaer settled matters.

"We could have had 10," growled Sir Alex Ferguson, and he might have been right, but it was that which United gave away to Celtic, Rio Ferdinand in particular, that gives cause for concern at the business end of the Champions' League.

It might have been the vintage Paul Scholes performance in midfield, the architect of two of United's goals that made their manager particularly bullish in the aftermath promising "a different bloody result next time" against Benfica.

Or maybe it was the sweet thrill of victory over "wee Gordon" his opposing manager and old foe Strachan, who bemoaned the award of a soft penalty to Ryan Giggs that earned United their first goal. It was one of those nights. There were 6,000 Celtic supporters goading their hosts, demonstrating Ferguson's theory on his own nation that "don't you worry, we Scots can always get ourselves up for these games". And a Strachan team that Ferguson praised for resisting playing "a bank of five across the middle and defend" - but that was as much praise as he was prepared to grant them.

Ferguson has other problems to deal with. Giggs limped off after a penalty-winning clash with the goalkeeper Artur Boruc, who, that incident apart, was excellent. The 32-year-old United winger will be out for three weeks with a hamstring injury but there was worse news elsewhere. Ferguson also confirmed that Park Ji-Sung would have an ankle ligaments operation today and would be out for three months.

So moved by his side's poor passing was Strachan that he quoted Jock Stein, the late former Celtic manager who was an equally influential figure on Ferguson's early years in management. "As Stein used to say to me, 'If you're not passing the ball you're no use to us'," Strachan said. "We will wake up in the morning and think, 'If only we passed the ball better'. And that's horrible."

The goal that United conceded was inflicted upon them by Ferdinand, and woefully so. These clouds that pass over the £30m England defender's concentration have a habit of arriving at the most inopportune moments - this time was no different. The ball lost somewhere between Ferdinand's ankles after 21 minutes, the striker Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink stole in and beat Edwin van der Sar from close range.

A "slack goal" was how Ferguson described it, although you could imagine he was somewhat blunter in private. United seemed to feel Ferdinand's embarrassment collectively and they went in fierce pursuit of an equaliser. Scholes led the way for United - selected as the man of the match by his manager for his "phenomenal composure and passing awareness" - he opened up Celtic.

The equaliser came on 28 minutes when Giggs escaped down the left and, in a race for the ball with the goalkeeper Boruc, had the lightest of contact but enough for the referee Lubos Michel to award a penalty. Giggs was discomfited enough to play no further part, he was replaced by Solskjaer, and Saha dispatched the penalty.

Ferdinand appeared to have learned little from his first tussle with Vennegoor of Hesselink and allowed the striker a free header on 36 minutes that did nothing to calm United. Three minutes later Carrick, on his Champions' League debut, dispossessed Thomas Gravesen in the midfield and found Scholes, whose beautifully incisive ball from the right channel met Saha's run - he tucked home United's second. It would have suited Ferguson to end the half then, but two minutes before the interval Wes Brown brought down Jiri Jarosik 20 yards out. From there the Japan international Shunsuke Nakamura hit an exquisite curling free-kick that Van der Sar did not even bother diving for before it hit the net.

Back to Scholes, who was the architect yet again two minutes after half-time. He darted through the midfield and laid a sweet ball into the stride of Saha's run. This time the Frenchman could not beat Boruc on the first or the second occasion but the ball squirmed to the back post where Solskjaer was on hand to stroke home United's third goal. "That was a goalscorer's goal," Ferguson enthused. "He just knew where the ball was going to land." Although United never quite killed the game. Saha worked hard for his hat-trick, a brilliant curling shot just wide minutes later and, just after the hour, a low header at which Boruc threw himself. Alongside him, Wayne Rooney, playing for the first time since 20 August, was a relative disappointment - "He has only played one hour and 25 minutes since the World Cup," Ferguson said, "and it showed."

In the partnership of Rooney and Saha, Ferguson has placed great trust although it was not only that which put him in such an effusive mood after the match. This was a victory over a manager for whom he has no great affection and also a victory over the rival team from his Glaswegian childhood. Three goals was more than United scored in their entire Champions' League campaign last season and, from that alone, he can draw great relief.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre; Fletcher, Scholes (O'Shea, 79), Carrick, Giggs (Solskjaer, 32); Rooney (Richardson, 86), Saha. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Evra, Smith, Vidic.

Celtic (4-1-4-1): Boruc; Wilson (Telfer, 51), Caldwell, McManus, Naylor; Lennon; Nakamura, Gravesen, Jarosik (Miller, 56), McGeady (Maloney, 69); Vennegoor of Hesselink. Substitutes not used: Marshall (gk), Balde, Zurawski, Evander.

Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).