Ferguson's men held by Sparta defiance

Sparta Prague 0 - Manchester United 0
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The Independent Football

The banner draped among the Manchester United fans proclaiming "The Spirit of '68" was deeply ambiguous. In the Czech Republic 1968 means resistance against an overwhelming force, not a first European Cup.

The banner draped among the Manchester United fans proclaiming "The Spirit of '68" was deeply ambiguous. In the Czech Republic 1968 means resistance against an overwhelming force, not a first European Cup.

Sparta Prague displayed that spirit in enormous quantities last night to force a goalless draw that while it might not unduly impede United's progress to the knock-out stages, will be celebrated long and hard.

Manchester United may have worn all-white but any resemblance to Real Madrid ended there. This was a weary and insipid display from a side that in this season's Champions' League has now managed a bare two victories from seven away fixtures. Arsène Wenger may have told Sir Alex Ferguson to calm down before Arsenal come to Old Trafford at the weekend but it was hard to imagine a team being less worked up without mogadon being added to the half-time Lucozade.

The Manchester United supporters came to Prague in their thousands to enjoy a city of beauty and beer before Sunday's gut-wrenching encounter with Arsenal. If their team expected a similarly gentle work-out, they were to be badly disappointed.

Ferguson is not usually dismissive of his opponents but upon landing in the Czech Republic he seemed to regard Sparta Prague as little more than a side of big, hulking footballers who would threaten only from set-pieces. Karel Poborsky did indeed whip in some powerful corners, one of which Tomas Jun headed on to the post, but Sparta were much, much better than this terse assessment. Without Roy Keane, Manchester United lacked authority in midfield, where in the first half Prague denied them space and time, while themselves looking comfortable in possession.

Ferguson's preference for Liam Miller and John O'Shea when Ferguson had international-class midfielders on the bench in the shape of Phil Neville and Kleberson baffled. If the younger Neville cannot win a place in what, in the context of the wider season, is an appetiser for Sunday's showdown with Arsenal his future at Old Trafford would appear bleak.

Poborsky was allowed to leave Manchester because in his manager's eyes he was unlucky to be competing for a place on the right wing at the same time David Beckham's talent was flowering at its freshest. Last night he drove Sparta Prague forward as if inspired by a need to prove himself and but for an instinctive save by Roy Carroll, he would have provided the evening's opening goal.

Without his highly-valued England international defender Rio Ferdinand, who given the fixture off to mourn his grandmother had somehow contrived to get himself photographed leaving a London club in the small hours of yesterday morning, United's defence was stretched. Only the positional excellence of Wes Brown saved them from several early embarrassments.

Up front, Manchester United showed far less coordination. The threat when it came arrived inevitably from Wayne Rooney, who sent a couple of thunderous shots wide, one with the aid of what would have been a very painful deflection.

Ruud van Nistelrooy, in contrast, appeared well off the rhythm of the game. In the first half his sole contribution to United's cause had been a wild use of the elbow, while in the second he received a cross in the area that on form would have produced a turn and shot. Instead, he allowed himself to be easily dispossessed and the night cried out for the urgency of an Alan Smith. On a baffling night the decision to introduce Louis Saha for Rooney rather than Van Nistelrooy was par for a very uneven course. It is a long, long time since Manchester United fans were forced to chant: "Attack, attack, attack" in open frustration.

Again it was Sparta Prague that came closest to scoring; again Jun was denied but this time by Carroll's legs rather than the post.

After the match, Ferguson expressed his disappointment with his his much-vaunted strikers failed to find the net again. "I felt we had goals in us, it's a bit frustrating not getting them," Ferguson said. "It's not a bad result away from home. They played quite well and had one or two chances due to a lack of concentration at the back I'm not happy with.

"It was a good team performance but disappointing not to score any goals."

Carroll emphasised the merit in drawing away from home: "It's a point gained rather than two lost. We're disappointed not to get three points but we've got one. We did well tonight, I only had two saves to make."

Whatever the weaknesses in this display - and there were many - United are still comfortably placed in Group D, especially since they would expect to beat both Prague and Lyon at Old Trafford. Malcolm Glazer may be attempting to buy into a global footballing brand but on recent evidence it is one unlikely to deliver a flood of trophies.

Sparta Prague (4-4-2): Blazek; Petras (Cech, 84), Homola, Kovac, Pergl; Urbanek, Zelenka (Simak, 81), Sivok, Poborsky; Vorisek, Jun (Meduna, 74). Substitutes not used: Bicik (gk), Michalik, Pacanda, Koubsky.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; G Neville, Brown, Silvestre, Heinze; Miller, Scholes, O'Shea, Giggs (Ronaldo, 79); Rooney (Saha, 80) Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Ricardo (gk), P Neville, Smith, Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba.

Referee: M De Santis (Italy).

Attendance: 22,000.

Elsewhere in group D

Lyon took full advantage of the stalemate in Prague to move to the top of the group with a 3-1 win over Fenerbahce in Istanbul. Second-half goals from Juninho Pernambu and Cris put Lyon 2-0 up. Macio Nobre gave Fenerbahce a lifeline with a goal after 68 minutes, before Pierre-Alain Frau extinguished home hopes three minutes from the end.