James Lawton: Moving tribute marred by United's inept display

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The Independent Football

Manchester United wore the unadorned red and white of a more innocent age yesterday but unfortunately it was just about all they could do for the memory of the Busby Babes.

The ritual was moving in the bright winter sunshine, when Sir Alex Ferguson and Sven Goran Eriksson laid wreaths in the centre circle, and the minute's silence which followed was far from the gut-wrenching desecration that was feared. Indeed, it was perfectly realised; if a somnolent cat had stirred in a neighbouring street it would have been heard – except, that was, when a few rogue fireworks were being sent up outside the ground.

This left time and appetite for just one more act of commemoration for the men who fell in Munich: the kind of performance which had marked the great team's last expression of their talent in England before flying off to Belgrade for a European Cup tie with Red Star.

The farewell of the Babes to the land they had filled with colour and anticipation was a stupendous performance at Highbury, when Arsenal were beaten 5-4 and the fans of both teams stood and cheered for quite some time after the first buses and tube trains had rattled away.

Here yesterday it was the United fans who were streaming away long before the end. Perhaps they were protesting at a certain lack of historical continuity. Or maybe they could not stand to see any longer a United effort that was not only arguably their worst for several seasons but surely must serve as the most inviting of green lights to another Arsenal team when they seek to extend their Premier League lead to five points against Blackburn tonight.

Also unhelpful was the fact that it was Manchester City who so unerringly exploited United's miserable failure to produce anything like a coherent contribution to an increasingly tight title race. City had been fading badly after their dazzling re-invention by Eriksson – to the point when some were saying that the challenge for a place in Europe was an illusion that had been expensively created without any guarantee of permanence.

But if this is the suspicion, it did not fare so well yesterday against a reality that could not be questioned. It was that Eriksson's latest raid into the transfer market has again worked remarkably well. Not only did the new striker Benjani Mwaruwari give City the kind of bite and ball-holding quality last seen before Nicolas Anelka left three years ago, his goal cruelly underlined United's greatest weakness on a day which was supposed to be as much about the present and the future as the past.

With Wayne Rooney suspended and Louis Saha suffering from what might be described as chronic fragility (of body and, some might say cynically, also of mind), United looked desperately short in the strike department – both on the field and the bench. United's back-up comprised a goalkeeper, a full-back and three midfielders. Ferguson just could not buy a goal as Carlos Tevez repeatedly found himself isolated, Ryan Giggs appeared to be running on empty and Cristiano Ronaldo scarcely hinted that he was about to add to his stunning total of 27 goals this season.

The United coach Carlos Queiroz was almost apologetic when he ransacked the excuse bag and came up with the old one about the devastation caused by midweek international duty. It did happen that Ronaldo required a scan after duty with Portugal, and apparently would not have played if Rooney had been available, but this was a performance which would have been hard to stomach in almost any circumstances.

On one occasion the ball bobbled as Ronaldo broke clear on the right and his irritation was such that he spent the best part of a minute acting out his frustration; meanwhile his team-mates made patterns designed to avoid their most potent forward being stranded hopelessly offside. It was a wretched display, then and on several other occasions, from the player who is now being pushed as the world's best. It did not look that way at all in a game which carried so much more value than mere Mancunian bragging rights.

Certainly Queiroz's complaints about international demands inevitably carried us back to the Busby Babes. They played 42 games on fields which resembled the battleground of the Somme and when, after the ravages of Munich, they were required to play a European Cup semi-final they had to do so without their emerging star Bobby Charlton. He was claimed by England.

The Munich disaster came, of course, when United were flying back through snow-filled skies desperate to meet a Football League deadline which insisted they returned to England 24 hours before a potentially decisive league match against the leaders Wolves. Such competitive integrity, of course, has been rather challenged these last few days by the Premier League's plan to add on an extra game that might be played anywhere in the world. Ferguson's rush away from the ground for a flight to Cape Town, where he will be publicising a summer tour by United, might just have been placed in the same category. Better spent, surely, would have been the time it took to cut through his assistant's smokescreen and say that nothing, least of all the club's poignant history, had been served on a day of professional breakdown.

The ritual was done beautifully. The football, United's at least, was an affront to a beautiful memory.