It was a night to exorcise the ghost of Wayne Rooney but in the end, as Old Trafford emptied, it was simply left haunted by his words. This opposition was the kind which offered Manchester United the chance to let their imaginations take hold but instead they just offered their soon-to-be prodigal son, wherever he was, to flick off a TV set and say: "I told you so." Memories of the last time United defeated Turkish opposition here – Rooney scoring a hat-trick on his Champions League debut against Fenerbahce in September 2004 – made for a chilling contrast.
It did not start out that way. The everyday anthems which rang down from the Stretford End – "United till I die"; "This is how it feels to be City, this is how it feels to be small" – seemed to be injected with new resonance; each talking to the events of the past four days. The message was that United always go on. And as for the man who has made it so clear he is not going to here for the journey? Well, he was submitted to the ultimate type of ignominy. Banished from the racks of T-shirts selling outside the ground, banished from the terrace songs, banished from the manager's programme notes which enthused about Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov. Banished from every place but the banners which read: "Coleen forgave you – we won't" and "Who's the whore now?"
This was the stage for United's players to deliver their own ripostes to Rooney's declaration that they are, in effect, not good enough: a declaration not given to their faces in the dressing room, as Roy Keane's always were, but from behind a press release issued a few hours before the game. Sir Alex Ferguson's team selection was the most eye-catching statement of faith imaginable in the young players he claims are the way forward. A night of flourishes would have served the manager well, too.
For 10 minutes, it seemed to be going just that way. Nani, a player whose progress has revealed that disagreements with Ferguson need not be irrevocable, span around a ball tapped into his path by Darren Fletcher, leaving Ozan Ipak in his wake, strode into the area and unravelled a left-foot shot which soared way beyond the goalkeeper's reach. Had he not tried one stepover fewer a few minutes later, he might have also spotted and found Fletcher, standing alone in the six yard box, certain to double the lead.
But that was all the evidence available to support Ferguson's impassioned defence late last night of his decision to invest faith rather than money in players. The side was certainly a shadow of the one which Roberto Mancini was remembering only yesterday. "Rooney, Tevez, Cristiano – they had a strongest attackers in the world I think," the City manager had said.
Ferguson counters that United are on the down side of the cycle of ageing and renewal in football. "A four-year cycle is probably the most you can achieve. We realizsed a few years ago that Giggs, Scholes, Neville were never going to last forever and so our policy is too develop footballers in their place," he reflected. When he speaks like this and tells of how he fought on in the teeth of doubts from one player that even Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo would make it, it is hard to do little but nod in acknowledgement of a wisdom which has been prevailing for decades.
But the doubts persist about those who have been groomed as successors. Anderson, who made way for Hernandez, looks heavy and still a long way from the Paul Scholes successor that United want him to be. Bursaspor "came to negate our ability to open up play and when you've got so many bodies in front of you it can be difficult to break down," the manager felt. But United expect midfielders to engineer a few more moments of genius than this. The European group stage has offered precious few.
Federico Macheda is also certainly a distance from one of the world-beaters Rooney yearned for in last night's statement – as even Ferguson acknowledged. "The weakness for us is when you play a young 19-year-old as a centre-forward with no experience. It's going to be hard. It's got to be a learning curve."
The sight of Gabriel Obertan arriving in Park Ji-sung's place was not one to lift the heart, either, even though he did narrowly direct a corner into side netting. Even Nani – the only one who managed to get daylight between himself and the goal – was a frustration, sacrificing as many opportunities as he seized.
Only the appearance of Hernandez, the one young recruit who has justified his manager's lavish praise, raised some spirit. The Mexican offered as much in 13 minutes as Macheda did in 90, sneaking behind his defender as he does to take a 40-yard Nemanja Vidic ball, but his first touch was poor and he screwed the ball wide.
A narrow victory, then, against a side undefeated in their domestic league, but it was one that somehow did not feel that way. One of the newspaper chroniclers of that Fenerbahce game declared of Rooney that "the Messiah has come to Manchester." The suspicion, six years on, is that he is the prophet who looked into United's future and called it just as it is.
Results so far Man Utd 0 Rangers 0, Bursaspor 0 Valencia 4; Valencia 0 Man Utd 1, Rangers 1 Bursaspor 0; Man Utd 1 Bursaspor 0, Rangers 1 Valencia 1.
Man United's remaining fixtures 2 Nov Bursaspor (a); 24 Nov Rangers (a); 7 Dec Valencia (h).
Rangers' remaining fixtures 2 Nov Valencia (a); 24 Nov Man United (h); 7 Dec Bursaspor (a).
Manchester United (4-3-3) Kuszczak; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Anderson (Hernandez, 77), Fletcher, Carrick; Nani, Macheda, Park (Obertan, 71). Substitutes not used Amos (gk), Neville, Berbatov, O'Shea, Bebe.
Bursaspor (4-2-3-1) Ivankov; Tandogan (Keceli, 71), Stepanov (Ozturk, h-t), Erdogan, Vederson; Ergic, Svensson; Sen, Insua, Ipek; Yidirim (Bahadir, h-t). Substitutes not used Ozkan (gk), Cimsir, Batalla, Nunez.
Referee G Rocchi (Italy).
Man of the match Nani.
Match rating 5/10.
Man for man marking
As quiet a night as he could expect at this level. Not required to make a direct save until added time. 6
Rafael da Silva
Claims he has learnt greater defensive responsibility but did not always show it. 5
Composed on his second European start, the England Under-21 defender kept the Turkish strikers quiet. 6
Partnering Smalling for the first time, made one error to offer half a chance but was otherwise sound. 6
Previously out of form, showed greater tenacity in defence and attack. Took one nasty knock. 7
Allowed Evra to attack outside him down the left and tended to crowd the centre as a result. 6
A little more adventurous than his partner Carrick, but without threatening a goal. 6
Content to sit and weigh anchor in front of the back four. 6
Saw plenty of the ball without always making the most of any
Settled United down with fine first goal and troubled left-back Vederson thereafter. 7
Held the ball up but found the two centre-halves daunting. 6
Obertan (for Park, 71). Almost scored from corner. 7
Hernandez (for Anderson, 77). Injected much-needed pace. 6
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