Lille, without a win and without a goal in the Champions' League before United arrived here supposedly on a mission of intent, even took the spoils in the aftermath of a deserved victory that Sir Alex Ferguson contributed to an uneven pitch. While Claude Puel's side partook of a lap of honour, the United manager disappeared down the tunnel without shaking his opponent's hand and Ruud Van Nistelrooy became embroiled in an ugly confrontation with Lille defender Efstathios Tavlaridis.
Ferguson later criticised referee Markus Merk for failing to punish Lille's use of the elbow but also had no option but to admit that the United players he defended in the wake of Keane's outburst now have to show they have the character to stop the club's relentless descent, one that a fall from the summit of Group D to third barely explains.
"It is hard for young players to show the experience and influence that experienced players always show," he said. "And that is understandable, but we are going to have to trust these young players. They've got to reveal their character and show a determination."
The most revealing reaction in Paris last night, however, came not from United's mediocre team but their travelling support, swelled beyond even its usual mass by the decision to switch the venue from Lille's historic Grimonprez-Jooris stadium.
An uncomfortable night for Ferguson and chief executive David Gill commenced with the kick-off when cries of "Keano" filled the Parisian air, and with every wasted pass, lazy tackle and unimaginative attack those chants grew louder, reaching their crescendo on the final whistle when they turned their backs on the players' applause until Van Nistelrooy walked over to give an apology and a shrug of his shoulders.
The nature of United's demise at Middlesbrough should have provided United with all the incentive they required to take control of their Champions' League destiny. Instead, there was a further illustration of how ineffectual this team has become as an insipid display served only to validate their injured captain's critique.
The only moment of promise before the break came from Wayne Rooney, who sent a 25-yard shot over Tony Sylva's crossbar and later illustrated how little United have learned from recent problems by collecting a booking for dissent.
After 38 minutes, Lille's long wait for a Champions' League goal was over. Tafforeau and Geoffrey Dernis combined to release the former in behind John O'Shea and his left-wing cross dissected the United defence as lone striker Matt Moussilou produced an exquisite dummy to allow former Tottenham midfielder Milenko Acimovic to take possession. The Croatian, his run unchecked by the United midfield, needed one touch to hold off the challenge of Wes Brown and then stroked a nonchalant finish into the top corner of the net.
Cristiano Ronaldo came closest to an equaliser for United with a miscued header from a Rooney corner that struck the underside of the bar before hitting Dernis on the line and finding safety, though it would have flattered United had it dropped over the line or had Ji-Sung Park converted the Portuguese's immaculate pass seven minutes from time. It is their slide, not the response Ferguson continually seeks, that is gathering apace these days and it is one not even a victory over Chelsea on Sunday would truly arrest.
Lille (4-2-3-1): Sylva; Chalme, Tavlaridis, Rafael, Tafforeau; Bodmer, Makoun; Debuchy, Acimovic (Cabaye, 77), Dernis (Gygax, 79); Moussilou (Odemwingie, 84). Substitutes not used: Malicki (gk), Fauvergue, Plestan, Lichtsteiner.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre; Ronaldo (Rossi, 90), Fletcher, Smith, Richardson (Park, 65); Rooney; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Miller, Bardsley, Pique, Jones.
Referee: M Merk (Germany).
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