United unable to discover spark as Ferguson's plan backfires

Manchester United 0 Rangers 0
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The Independent Football

There have been some great nights under the lights at Old Trafford when the promise of glory in that unceasing quest for the European Cup has inspired different generations of players at Manchester United. This was not one of them.

It was not that Rangers figuratively parked the bus in front of the United goal. A more accurate analogy would be that they parked every one of the buses that transported their supporters from their police-enforced isolation in Wigan down to Manchester. The visitors enjoyed just 39 per cent of the official Uefa possession count in a game that included, by a rough calculation, about three per cent entertainment.

It was possible to admire the determination of David Weir, aged 40, restricting Wayne Rooney to one off-target header or Maurice Edu and Lee McCulloch charging around in midfield. Energetic and well-organised, Rangers fulfilled their manager Walter Smith's notion of them as the underdogs in every sense. But surely no one actually likes watching this stuff.

For the rest of the evening's blandness, the blame must go to United. Sir Alex Ferguson picked a team with ten changes from the side that drew with Everton on Saturday including Chris Smalling, Fabio da Silva and Javier Hernandez and when he says that they should have won the game he is right in theory. The problem is they did not do so and two precious home points slip away.

It was a game notable mainly for a gruesome injury to Antonio Valencia that fell into the category of those suffered by Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo da Silva in all but the fact that it seemed virtually self-inflicted. Just as Alan Smith did in February 2006, as a United player at Anfield, Valencia has suffered a dislocation and a break to his left ankle which must mean his season is over.

Apart from four long-range shots from Darron Gibson, another squad player who missed his chance to make an impression, there were desperately few chances for United. In the end the home side managed only three shots on target out of their total of 19, which incredibly was one fewer than Rangers with four. It is the job of great teams to beat the side in front of them and in that task United failed badly last night.

There were no complaints from Ferguson who has, in the past, bemoaned the tendency of teams to come to Old Trafford and barricade themselves in their own half. He said that he admired the intensity of the Rangers team which was partly a nod in the direction of his old friend Walter Smith but also seemed borne of the frustration that his side just failed to break their opponents down.

As spectacle, this was Champions League group football at its very worst. Smith has a chip on his shoulder about the money in English football, and the relative impoverishment of Scottish clubs. Although it scarcely needs pointing out how much, in turn, the Old Firm dominate their own league's money-pot. Smith's revenge on English football last night was a team that played up that role of the poor cousins. Rangers revelled in it.

They played so deep that United were never able to get behind the full-backs and were reduced to passing the ball across and in front of the line of nine, sometimes ten, blue shirts in front of them. Even so United did not get close enough to win a corner until the second half. They might have been able to open Rangers up with a pass from Paul Scholes or a flick from Dimitar Berbatov but neither was even on the bench.

Ferguson's argument was that many of this team were in the side that beat Chelsea in the Community Shield game last month, although only four were in both starting line-ups. Smalling and Hernandez who started last night came on at Wembley. It is not the first time his squad players have let him down. United suffered a similar disappointment against Besiktas in the Champions League last season with an inexperienced side.

For Rooney, returning to the United team for the first time since you-know-what, it was one of those nights when nothing much went right. But then he had about one sight of goal from a cross from the substitute Ryan Giggs and precious little else. Rooney was not even United's worst. Although it is early days yet for Hernandez, he will have to do better than this.

The Mexican striker did well to get above the Rangers defence in the 12th minute but his header from Fabio's cross went wide. A goal there would have altered the dynamic of the game but Rangers kept clinging on and the longer it went on, the more confident they got.

The Scottish champions survived when Rooney and Hernandez ran at them on the break in the 21st minute. Hernandez's return pass to Rooney was too predictable. As the England striker looked in despair it was tempting to think that there would be plenty more chances like that. Yet United never managed to do it again.

In fact, aside from a variety of long-range efforts from Gibson, it got little better in the second half. The Irish midfielder is 23 next month and this was only his 22nd appearance for United. He will have to regard this as another opportunity missed. When Rooney dragged Edu to the ground by his collar on 71 minutes he was not the only one who looked fed up.

The second half was interrupted for the treatment and subsequent removal of Valencia. There was no discernible contact with the defender Kirk Broadfoot, just Valencia going over heavily on his left ankle as he surged up the right wing. The reaction of the Rangers players was immediate and Sky Sports gave it the full black-out treatment, choosing not to screen replays.

United were re-organised in Valencia's absence with Giggs on the left and Park Ji-Sung moving to the right. Then with 15 minutes left, Ferguson brought on Michael Owen and Jonny Evans on at left-back in the place of Fabio. There was hardly any change in United aside from a half-chance for Darren Fletcher.

The roar that accompanied the final whistle from the Rangers fans told you that they thought their trip from Glasgow via Wigan had been worth it. United will in all likelihood still qualify from this group. They will have to be better than this against Liverpool on Sunday.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Brown, Ferdinand, Smalling, F Da Silva (Evans, 75); Park (Owen, 75), Fletcher, Gibson, Valencia (Giggs, 63); Rooney, Hernandez. Substitutes not used Van der Sar (gk), Anderson, O'Shea, Macheda.

Rangers (4-5-1): McGregor; Broadfoot, Weir, Bougherra, Papac; Whittaker, Davis, McCulloch, Edu, Naismith; Miller (Lafferty, 81). Substitutes not used Alexander (gk), Foster, Beattie, Weiss, Little, Hutton.

Referee O Benquerenca (Portugal).

Group C

Results so far: Bursaspor 0 Valencia 4, Man United 0 Rangers 0.

Man United's remaining fixtures: 29 Sep Valencia (a); 20 Oct Bursaspor (h); 2 Nov Bursaspor (a); 24 Nov Rangers (a); 7 Dec Valencia (h).

Rangers' remaining fixtures: 29 Sep Bursaspor (h); 20 Oct Valencia (h); 2 Nov Valencia (a); 24 Nov Man United (h); 7 Dec Bursaspor (a).

* Valencia made a strong start in Group C, giving the Turks a demoralising introduction to Europe's premier club competition. Tino Costa put the visitors ahead with a powerful shot into the top corner, and five minutes before half-time Aritz Aduriz's header doubled the lead. The hosts briefly burst into life after the introduction of Turgay Bahadir and Sercan Yildirim to their attack, but the home fans' hopes were snuffed out on 68 minutes when Pablo Hernandez made it 3-0. Roberto Soldado finished the scoring eight minutes later, capping a fine run down the right with an angled finish.