Fergie's frown speaks volumes

United need to widen the margins and close the gaps at home if Barthez's zeal is to be rewarded
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was hard not to trip over plaudits at Old Trafford as Manchester United launched their Champions' League campaign with a 5-1 win. "They play in another way and another size," Anderlecht's defeated and deflated coach, Aimé Anthuenis, said. "Normally you are disappointed when you are defeated by that margin but it's another thing when you have conceded goals to a team like that."

It was hard not to trip over plaudits at Old Trafford as Manchester United launched their Champions' League campaign with a 5-1 win. "They play in another way and another size," Anderlecht's defeated and deflated coach, Aimé Anthuenis, said. "Normally you are disappointed when you are defeated by that margin but it's another thing when you have conceded goals to a team like that."

Anthuenis still had the image of an incandescent Ryan Giggs torturing his right flank and Andy Cole easing away from his lumbering defenders to fuel his superlatives. As an attacking force United had been irresistible, threatening briefly to match the 10-0 rout that had garnished their first appearance in the European Cup against the same opponents 44 years earlier. At times the pace, the movement and the imagination were breathtaking.

After such a performance it would be churlish to find fault but Sir Alex Ferguson happily fulfils that role and it was notable he sought to praise individuals - Giggs, Cole and Gary Neville - rather than the team as a whole. Rather he seemed shocked at the poverty of Anderlecht, saying: "You can be fooled by videos sometimes."

While he was delighted by the exuberant attacking, the television pictures of his frown showed Ferguson had been worried by the Belgians before Cole put his side ahead after 14 minutes. "I would have been happy with that first half," Anthuenis said, "but perhaps I'm not so difficult to please." Experience has taught the United manager better.

His side's failures in Europe in recent times have usually followed the concession of an early goal at Old Trafford and a better team than Anderlecht might have erected a similar hurdle. As early as the fourth minute a home back four, never entirely convincing, allowed Bertrand Crasson to cross from the right and Walter Baseggio shot narrowly wide.

Two minutes later a more adept passer than Jan Koller would have found the runner who had stolen beyond United's rearguard while immediately afterwards the one Anderlecht player who appeared to possess real pace, Tomasz Radzinski, almost caught out a hesitant Ronny Johnsen.

True, this was the first phase of the Champions' League, and as Gary Neville revealed when he pointed out the emperor had no clothes last week, United's players find it difficult to raise themselves for a stage that is less of a challenge and more of a commercial exercise. The defence, too, can never be analysed properly without the colossal Jaap Stam, but you had only to see the pictures from the Nou Camp to see the potential hazards that lie ahead.

Dynamo Kiev, who United meet on Tuesday, would have been contemplating their chances with some optimism, too, if they still had the players who took them to the semi-finals in 1999. Having sold their strikers Andrei Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov, however, and also shed Volodymir Ezersk and Sergei Kormitselv during the summer, the Ukrainians are not the force they were.

Kiev took the lead through Shevchenko's successor, Maksim Shatskikh, against PSV Eindhoven in Holland on Wednesday before going down 2-1, but the chief obstacle United are likely to face in the 82,000-capacity Olympiysky Stadium will be tiredness created by yesterday's match at Everton and the long flight.

Kiev's record at home, though, is not impressive - they lost two of their three matches in the first stage last year - and United's European lapses have tended to occur at Old Trafford. Even at their point of failure last season they drew 0-0 at the Bernabeu before succumbing at home to Real Madrid.

The chief reason for that is the imperative to go for the jugular on home soil. Visitors can sit back and strike on the break and no team is better equipped to do that than United as Anthuenis conceded. "They come out of defence very, very quickly," he said, "they counter very effectively if necessary. The ball comes from the goalkeeper to fast players like Giggs and Cole, and you are under pressure."

He was correct to identify Fabien Barthez because an important element of United's start to the season has been his willingness and imagination to launch attacks. Much has been made of his Grobbelaar-esque eccentricity and the power and accuracy of his kicking but even Peter Schmeichel, whose throws had the accuracy of a David Beckham pass, did not look so eagerly and quickly to counter.

Koller's goal on Wednesday was the first the goalkeeper had conceded at Old Trafford and he announced his annoyance by launching a massive kick of the ball into the top tier of the East Stand. "He didn't like that, did he?" Ferguson said with a chuckle. You suspect United's success or failure in the Champions' League this season will depend on limiting Barthez's displeasure at home.

Comments