Batistuta punishes error-prone United

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As shop windows go this was not the best advertisment for the expensive talents of Manchester United's coveted superstars.

As shop windows go this was not the best advertisment for the expensive talents of Manchester United's coveted superstars.

In front of an expectant Italian audience last night, including several interested club presidents and coaches, Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs all failed to live up to their reputations.

They were not alone as United, bedevilled by defensive errors and attacking ineptitude, subsided to an ordinary Fiorentina team.

Mistakes by Keane and Henning Berg handed Gabriel Batistuta and Abel Balbo goals after 24 and 51 minutes respectively, and even a typical late rally could not rescue the holders. To compound United's agony Keane, Beckham and Paul Scholes were all booked.

After the early-season problems with injuries and goalkeepers United were, for the first time in this Champions' League campaign, at full strength, Mark Bosnich having suffered no reaction to training on his injured knee despite being worried enough to pack it in ice on the flight over.

Fiorentina were less fortunate, with their £16m striking pair of Enrico Chiesa and Predrag Mijatovic absent, but they still began confidently, with Rui Costa, the Portuguese playmaker, finding space.

In an early indication of his influence he sent in a dangerous cross in the second minute that Gary Neville did well to head away under pressure from Batistuta.

A sunny day had given way to a chill evening, but there was no shortage of heat and light in the Artemio Franchi stadium with a fervent crowd welcoming both teams with a ring of red and green flares and a barrage of drum-backed chants.

The 1,000 United supporters, packed into a thin wedge of terracing with large no-go zones on either side, struggled to make themselves heard but were given encouragement after seven minutes when Paul Scholes, running on to Dwight Yorke's lay-back, drilled a shot just wide. It was a rare excursion with United's final ball poor, and Fiorentina began to exert steady pressure.

After 17 minutes Rui Costa, running on to Moreno Torricelli's pass, brought an excellent left-handed save from Bosnich, then Balbo from 30 yards provoked a more comfortable one.

The pressure intensified. Balbo wasted a good chance by trying to find Batistuta instead of shooting, but it reaped reward when Keane, having broken up an attack, unaccountably gave the ball straight to Batistuta, unmarked and 20 yards from goal. The gift was duly accepted. Scholes, with a powerful volley, almost equalised immediately as United surged forward. For 15 minutes they penned the Italians back, pressing on both wings, but the ball would not drop for them. Instead Fiorentina were more threatening on the break and Bosnich, having saved from Balbo, was relieved to see Jorge Heinrich's fierce volley go over.

The fear that it might not be United's night heightened three minutes before the break when, after Toldo had saved David Beckham's free-kick, the rebound hit Tomas Repka and bounced up and on to the bar.

Sir Alex Ferguson will doubtless have reminded his players during the break that their destiny was in their own hands, but they may have felt their luck was changing as, within a minute of the restart, a Heinrich shot which had Bosnich beaten flashed just wide of the post.

However, five minutes later Berg, looking to pass inside from the right flank, was caught in possession by Batistuta. He advanced on goal, drawing Jaap Stam, before laying the ball back to his compatriot Balbo who thrashed it past Bosnich. "Argentina, Argentina" came the cry from the Curva Fiesole.

Now United had to repeat their triumph of Turin last spring when they came from two-down to beat Juventus. Even that distant prospect was almost put beyond reach a few minutes later as Berg allowed Batistuta to reach a deep Rui Costa cross only to be rescued as "Batigol" showed a rare lack of control in front of goal.

As United became frustrated Scholes was booked for a foul on Angelo Di Livio and Keane for dissent. It was time for a change. On came Phil Neville, brother Gary moving to central defence, and the heroes of Barcelona, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham. The pair had managed three goals this season between them, another treble was required.

Instead both miskicked in good positions, along with Scholes, as United drew a rare blank. It could have been even worse. An injury to Alessandro Pierini, which angered the home team and their fans, led to a tempestuous finish in which Keane was lucky not to get a second booking for twice pushing Aldo Firicano in the face.

Fiorentina (3-4-1-2): Toldo; Repka, Firicano, Pierini (Adani, 79); Torricelli, Di Livio (Rossitto, 67), Cois, Heinrich; Rui Costa; Batistuta, Balbo (Bressan, 79). Substitutes not used: Taglialatela, Padalino, Amoroso, Tarozzi.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Bosnich; G Neville, Berg (P Neville, 63), Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Yorke (Solskjaer, 63), Cole (Sheringham, 63). Substitutes not used: Van Der Gouw (gk), Butt, Fortune, Higginbottom.

Referee: B Heynemann (Germany).

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