Sir Alex Ferguson's investment of faith in his club's youth failed to yield dividends last night as a desultory goalless draw against Rangers at Old Trafford was compounded by a severe ankle injury which appears to have ended Antonio Valencia's season.
Ferguson admitted that his decision to play 22-year-old Javier Hernandez instead of Dimitar Berbatov had deprived his side of a player who might have overcome Walter Smith's obdurate defence. Being without the Bulgarian was "a loss," he said, because "he has been brilliant for us this year. He has an ability to create situations out of tight positions. He would have done that tonight."
On a frustrating night for British clubs, Harry Redknapp was left to rue the fact that "goals change attitudes" after watching his Tottenham side, two goals up inside 18 minutes, pegged back to 2-2 before Peter Crouch missed the chance of doubling his own tally away to Werder Bremen. "They got the goal when they were struggling to live with us and that gave them a lift," said Redknapp.
But while Spurs' European entry was a thrilling one, United failed to muster a serious shot on target all night and Ferguson's gloom was compounded by Valencia's injury – believed to be a fracture and dislocation of his left ankle, which buckled when he received the ball unchallenged. The Ecuadorean, who will be operated on today, underwent surgery on his right ankle this summer. Ferguson compared the injury to the horrific double leg break and dislocated ankle sustained by Alan Smith in an FA Cup tie at Anfield in February, which kept him out of the game for seven and a half months. "It's really bad for the boy. It will keep him out for a long time," said Ferguson. Ironically, Smith was watching last night's game from the stands.
Wayne Rooney, who marched out of Old Trafford night saying "No" when asked if he would talk, was a minimal threat on his recall to a side which had only Darren Fletcher from the 11 who drew at Everton on Saturday. It was not so much a bus as a supertanker that Walter Smith's miserably unambitious side parked at Old Trafford and Smith later apologised for the lack of ambition – saying it was the recourse of a team who were struggling to compete in Europe.
"In life, it's easier to defend something than create something" Smith said. "But that's the only choice left for us now. We don't feel proud of that but Uefa have allowed this situation to develop." Smith's argument about the uneven levels of spending among the richer and poorer clubs has been a common complaint of his.
"I know what the criticism will be: why didn't I pick a stronger team," said Ferguson, who also fielded Chris Smalling, Darron Gibson and Fabio da Silva. "But I did pick what I thought was a strong team. I don't think if I'd picked others it would have made a difference. Eight of them played in the Community Shield." Four of last night's United line-up did actually start at Wembley.
Ferguson reflected that "if we had won, everyone would have said we deserved it. But we did not make any chances – all of our efforts were from outside the box and our first corner was after about 70 minutes."
Looking ahead to Sunday's Old Trafford encounter with Liverpool, he said: "Sunday is a big game. The disappointment of Saturday['s draw with Everton] has to resonate with the players. They can't let that happen again."