The reinvention of Phil Neville, which is proving as startling as that of Britney Spears, acquired a glamorous new dimension last night. Unlike Britney, this did not involve snogging Madonna but waltzing through the Rangers defence to inflict on the Scottish champions their first home defeat by English opposition in more than 40 years.
Neville's shift from being the fall guy at full-back to an integral part of Manchester United's midfield has gone largely unnoticed but the story is now headline material. His fifth-minute goal, only his eighth in 322 games for United, put United in the frame for the Champions' League knock-out rounds and gave Sir Alex Ferguson a victorious return to Ibrox.
Given the pedigree of the teams - they had won eight domestic championships each in the last 11 seasons - the tie was otherwise disappointing. A curious hybrid of old-fashioned cup tie and modern European encounter, it was a poor advertisement for the British game. United's emotional and tactical discipline in the hothouse atmosphere augured well for their campaign prospects but neither side impressed in attack.
As ever on such occasions, the visiting team will have left the dressing-room with instructions to hush the crowd. United did as ordered, taking the lead in their first attack. A poor headed clearance by Craig Moore fell to Phil Neville, who exchanged passes with Ruud van Nistelrooy then ran at a retreating defence. With Mikel Arteta and Moore standing off him Neville rode Fernando Ricksen's weak tackle and squeezed a soft shot inside the far post. Ibrox was well and truly hushed.
Neville began in front of his brother on the right flank, Ferguson pairing Quinton Fortune with Roy Keane in central midfield. Paul Scholes had licence to roam from the left flank. This gave United an advantage in central midfield as Rangers opted for width, pushing Peter Lovenkrands and Paolo Vanoli forward on the flanks.
Lovenkrands was to prove Rangers' most potent striker but few of his team-mates impressed. Vanoli thrashed their best chance wide, Michael Mols was starved of opportunity and Shota Arveladze rarely involved. Rangers are now third in the group and a similar failure at Old Trafford on 4 November will leave them adrift.
The early goal deflated Rangers and it was not until the second quarter of the game that they tested Tim Howard in the United goal. The home crowd had become frustrated, jeering their players' many mistakes. To their credit Rangers did not hide. Seeking comfort from a formidable home record - only Valencia had previously won here in six years of European football - they pressed forward.
Vanoli ought to have levelled after 27 minutes when a poor clearance by Rio Ferdinand fell to him. Panicking, he slashed the ball wide. Soon afterwards the Italian went closer, screwing a shot past the far post after another scramble.
With Howard having to tip over an Arveladze shot, an equaliser threatened but United stepped up the tempo. It took an interception from Moore, as Ryan Giggs tried to release Van Nistelrooy, and a goalline clearance by Arteta from Mikaël Silvestre's header, to keep United within reach at the break. United stayed in control and Keane would have marked a commanding display with a 54th-minute goal had Stefan Klos not parried his fierce shot.
Rangers rallied, winning a series of corners. But Phil Neville headed Moore's header off the line and Lovenkrands headed into Howard's arms. Ferdinand, whose poise betrayed none of the anxieties he must be feeling, twice intervened as Lovenkrands and Ricksen looked to break through.
These efforts roused Ibrox from its slumber but the match remained strangely muted. Anders Frisk, having booked John O'Shea inside the first minute for a crunching tackle on Lovenkrands, had made it clear he would judge the tie as a European rather than a British one, and the players took heed.
With the match slipping away Rangers launched a final assault. As ever, Lovenkrands was the spearhead, switching wings to fly past Gary Neville but shoot, again, just wide. Into injury-time the Dane again tricked and sprinted his way through the wall of red. At last he hit the target, but Howard, at full strength, put a hand on the ball to suffocate Rangers' hopes.
Rangers (4-2-3-1): Klos; Khizanishvili (Ross, 86), Berg, Moore, Ball; Ricksen, Arteta; Lovenkrands, Vanoli (Nerlinger, 67), Arveladze; Mols. Substitutes not used: McGregor (gk), Emerson, Ostenstad, Capucho, Hughes.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Howard; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea; P Neville (Butt, 85), Keane, Scholes, Fortune (Djemba-Djemba, 90); Giggs; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Ronaldo, Bellion, Forlan, Fletcher.
Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).
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