The twin impostors of triumph and disaster were out in force at Old Trafford last night. Manchester United swept aside the memory of their autumn humiliation by Deportivo La Coruña with a scintillating performance of counter-attacking football to cruise into the semi-finals of the European Cup.
However, they will face Liverpool's conquerors, Bayer Leverkusen, without both Roy Keane and David Beckham. The England captain last night joined the Irish leader on the sidelines after suffering a broken bone in his left foot. Unlike Keane, he is not expected to be fit for the 15 May final, should United reach it.
To get there they will also have to overcome the loss, for the first leg at least, of Ronny Johnsen, who pulled a hamstring last night. Juan Sebastian Veron, who gave one of his best performances for United last night, also departed early after aggravating his Achilles injury. Though Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, expects Veron to recover in time for the Old Trafford first leg, on Wednesday 24 April, the depth of United's squad will still be severely tested both then and for the second leg, in Germany six days later.
One reserve who proved he is up to the task last night was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He scored within seconds of replacing Beckham after 21 minutes and, though Laurent Blanc's 44th-minute own goal gave United cause for concern, the Norwegian settled the tie even before Deportivo were reduced to nine men. The dismissals of Lionel Scaloni and Pedro Duscher, and later goals by Ryan Giggs and Djalminha, were largely irrelevant.
Most encouragingly for United was the performance, in Keane's role, of Nicky Butt, who had been doubtful with a migraine. "When you look at maturity of Nicky tonight, and the performances of our front players, we're not without hope for the semi," Ferguson said .
"Leverkusen are an outstanding football team, their football won the game against Liverpool. You have to use imagination and discipline against them, but I think we have a chance," Ferguson added. He was justifiably pleased with United last night, though he confessed that there was a point when he feared fate was against his club. "We played some fantastic football in the first half and deserved to be in front," he said. "But when you lose an own goal just before half-time you begin to think things are maybe conspiring against you, that it's not your year."
It might not have been had Diego Tristan not wasted an excellent 12th-minute chance after Juan Carlos Valeron had threaded a pass through United's defence. He dallied and Fabien Barthez saved at his feet.
Solskjaer was much sharper 11 minutes later. Replacing Beckham, he took up the right-wing role but his natural predator's instincts could not be subdued. Duscher, Beckham's aggressor, was guilty of another foul and Solskjaer delivered poetic justice as he stabbed in Veron's free-kick.
Three up on aggregate, United looked through, and even the loss of Johnsen seemed no problem, for Blanc was in commanding form and a disheartened Deportivo were passing down blind alleys. However, Solskjaer's defensive inexperience was exposed by Enrique Romero who went past him before crossing from the byline. Blanc, attempting to clear, steered the ball past Barthez.
United came out after the break determined to finish off the Galicians. Blanc sent a header over the bar from a corner, Ruud van Nistelrooy, from Quinton Fortune's cross, tested Francisco Molina, and Giggs produced some threatening runs. However, as Deportivo began to dominate possession, nerves spread around Old Trafford.
Fingernails did not suffer unduly though for, 11 minutes into the half, Solskjaer struck again. Veron was once more the provider, playing in the Norwegian with the outside of his boot. The emphatic finish was typical Solskjaer. "Veron's was a match-winning pass," said the Deportivo coach, Javier Irureta. "United really hurt us on the counter-attack."
United were 4-1 up on aggregate and any hope Deportivo may have had of mounting one of their dramatic comebacks disappeared three minutes later, along with the angry figure of Lionel Scaloni. The full-back, booked for dissent in the first-half, spoke out of turn again as Duscher received a long-overdue caution.
Old Trafford began to party and Giggs caught the mood scoring with an exquisite finish after a mazy run. With Deportivo in disarray, Duscher was dismissed after receiving a second caution for tripping Butt. In the final minute Butt deflected a Djalminha free-kick into his own net for another own goal, but United's fans were too busy taunting any Liverpool fans foolish enough to tune in to care.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Barthez; G Neville, Blanc, Johnsen (Brown, 37), Silvestre; Beckham (Solskjaer, 21), Butt, Veron (P Neville, 74), Fortune; Giggs; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Irwin, Brown, Stewart.
Deportivo La Coruña (4-2-3-1): Molina; Scaloni, Hector, Naybet, Romero; Duscher, Valeron; Victor (Makaay, 50), Djalminha, Fran (Capdevilla, 62); Tristan (Pandiani, 72). Substitutes not used: Nuno Simoes (gk), Amavisca, Emerson, Jose Manuel.
Referee: M Merk (Germany).
* Real Madrid reached the last four last night by overturning a first-leg deficit to beat Bayern Munich 3-2 on aggregate in Spain.Reuse content