United undone by slick Boksic

Juventus 1 Manchester United 0: EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE: Pointless starts for Ferguson and Smith as Porto provide surprise in San Siro
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The Independent Online
Reports of the renaissance of English football once again appear to be premature. Manchester United may have avoided the men-against-boys humiliation suffered by Rangers last season but it was still men-against- teenagers in the Stadio Delle Alpi last night.

The English double winners were comfortably second best to the European champions. They rarely managed to maintain possession, they completely failed to bring a save from Angelo Peruzzi, and they were lucky not to concede more goals. As 1-0 defeats go, this was a thrashing.

"We could have lost ny more," Alex Ferguson said. "If you lose possession at this level they will cut your throats. We were naive but we can still qualify. It is a bonus the other teams in the group [Rapid Vienna and Fenerbahce] drawing."

The decisive goal was scored after 32 minutes by Alen Boksic. Ferguson tried to buy him in the summer. It will have given him no pleasure to have had his judgement confirmed.

The Croatian striker troubled United all night and took his goal beautifully. He had set the tone by beating Gary Neville and Ronny Johnsen inside the opening five minutes and then created a series of chances for his team- mates. Had Christian Vieri, in particular, finished as well as Boksic the scoreline would have better reflected the game.

The only consolation for United is that this was the match they could afford to lose. When the Champions' League draw was made, it was clear their destiny would be decided in Vienna, Istanbul and Old Trafford, not Turin. A point here would have been a bonus. United must now regroup for the visit of Rapid Vienna on 25 September.

Their day had begun brightly when their five most promising starlets, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, each tied themselves to the club until the 21st century.

Gary Pallister, as anticipated, was passed fit and David May was sacrificed for the greater mobility and European experience of Ronny Johnsen. The Norwegian's inclusion meant United began with seven "foreigners" in their starting line-up and three more on the bench. Pre-Bosman half of those players would have had to have been omitted.

Juventus settled for four, one of whom was Boksic. He turned Johnsen and Neville before, in the 12th minute, he broke on the left and crossed to Antonio Conte. As United's fans held their breath his volley went down, and bounced up over the bar.

A further dozen minutes later Boksic crossed from the right only for Vieri to head wide. Within two minutes the pounds 3m striker had missed again, this time after Alessandro Del Piero had beaten Neville on the left.

Three minutes later Juventus thought they had gone ahead when Conte followed up after Peter Schmeichel had parried Gianluca Pessotto's 25-yard drive. Flares were ignited all over the stadium only to be hurled on to the running track in fury as the German referee disallowed the "goal" for offside. It was a controversial decision as Conte was not the culprit.

The succession of chances disguised the fact that United were defending well, they were just under so much pressure chances were bound to come. This was because they had nothing in attack. Eric Cantona appeared unhappy and isolated as a lone forward, Jordi Cruyff was innocuous while Karel Poborsky saw plenty of possession but kept running into blind alleys.

Yet ironically, it was after a rare United attack that Juventus scored. With United's central defenders up for their first corner, Juventus broke through Zinedine Zidane, his pass released Boksic who shook off Butt before chipping past Schmeichel.

Cruyff joined Neville in the book as United sought to contain Juventus. With Vieri's help (another missed header) they succeeded to half-time.

United's support would not have been heartened by the sight of Brian McClair coming on for the uninjured Giggs after the break but he did manage their first shot, a volley over the bar.

Ferguson later ended Poborsky's nightmare and threw on Andy Cole and Ole Solskjaer. But, although United had more of the game it made no difference. Only Juventus looked like scoring and would have done but for Schmeichel's agility, and Juventus' profligancy.

The depression did not end with the final whistle. This was the first competitive match between Juventus and a an English side since the Heysel tragedy and it was saddening to learn of clutch of violent incidents in Turin in the early hours of Wednesday morning. It was quite possible that the United supporters were as much sinned against than sinners but the incidents led to a tense atmosphere around bars in which their supporters congregated yesterday.

By the time the 3,800 travelling fans reached the stadium they were merry enough to ignore the ritual burning of a Union Jack on the Curva Sud but the aftermatch mood was less cheery. They were kept behind by the Italian police and, judging by the noises drifting across the cavernous stadium late last night, they were not all happy. The night ended with the unwelcome, but familiar sound of sirens. We still have much to learn, on and off the pitch.

Juventus (4-3-3): Peruzzi; Porrini, Montero (Juliano, 90), Ferrara, Pessotto; Conte, Zidane (Di Livio, 77), Deschamps; Boksic, Vieri (Amoruso, 73), Del Piero. Substitutes not used: Rampulla (gk), Tacchinardi.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Pallister, Johnsen, Irwin; Poborsky (Solskjaer, 77), Beckham, Butt, Giggs (McClair, h-t); Cantona, Cruyff (Cole, 77). Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), May.

Referee: M Merk (Germany).

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