’99 reverse sees United’s season on the brink
By Daniel Alston.
A perfect start nulled by the most catastrophic of endings saw Manchester United beaten 2-1 by Bayern Munich in the 92nd minute, with Wayne Rooney limping off to injury.
It was the cruelest of double blows, leaving United fans feeling as close to how Munich fans must have felt that night 11 years ago – back in the Nou Camp, when two late, late goals sealed a comeback and handed the Champions League trophy to the Red Devils.
Tonight was the complete reverse. Although Manchester United will have no arguments about the result, it will be the manner in which they lost that will frustrate them the most. And although not a final, it is the fact that their form has relied heavily on 33-goal Rooney, casting doubts over whether they can still clinch at least the Premiership title without him.
Off to a dream start following Rooney’s left foot volley from a deflected Nani free-kick, that vital away goal had already been secured with Bayern hardly out of the traps.
A strong and tested United XI to start in their favoured 4-5-1 formation, with the surprise choice of Nani in favour of Antonio Valencia on the right. Perhaps United would be weaker down that side, with the aging Gary Neville losing what little pace he had by the year.
Yet that assist within the first two minutes justified Sir Alex’s choice. A slip by Demichelis in the box allowed Rooney to fire home unmarked and it was most certainly game on. 1-0 Manchester United.
The busy midfield battle was soon underway, with Paul Scholes, Ji-Sung Park and Darren Fletcher linking up well down the right hand side, probing with one-touch passes to find another opening in quick succession.
Bayern recovered strongly, with Lahm and Altintop streaming down the opposite flank, posing real questions of Patrice Evra. On the 10-minute mark United’s recently sturdy defence showed its first signs of faltering. Darren Fletcher was caught out and disposed near his own box, yet regained the ball only for Neville to do the same. Nerves were clear.
The long ball game featured heavily in United’s arsenal tonight, with lone striker Rooney fed numerous launches. With quarter of an hour gone, he was played through but saw his effort blocked. That fell to Scholes who tried to play a 1-2 into the box, followed by a similar attempt by Nani who fired just wide.
Franck Ribery, the dangerman highlighted by Ferguson before the clash, then found his first attempt on goal, hitting a deflected shot that Edwin Van Der Sar met low and held.
The end-to-end action continued, with Nani floating in a cross that came back off the scrambling Hans-Jorg Butt’s crossbar on 21 minutes.
Bayern soon stepped up a gear, perhaps realising that going 2-0 down at home was a looming possibility. Ribery pulled most of the strings; knocking a ball over for Altintop who couldn’t control when facing Van der Sar. Minutes later, the Turkish midfielder volleyed across goal but Ivica Olic could not convert.
The industrious Fletcher then set up Rooney with a golden chance to make the hosts rue their misses. Cutely pulling away from Lahm on the left, the Scot flung a perfect cross that met Rooney’s feet six yards out. Taking a moment to adjust to his left foot, the ‘White Pele’ drove low and at Butt’s feet. Chance spurned.
It’s a game for the full-backs, with Neville and Lahm the best outfield performers at half time. The former staking his claim for a World Cup call-up with a solid defensive display, whilst the latter attacking with energy and flair as his side seek an equaliser.
The second half kicks off as if there hasn’t been a break at all. Ribery, quick to resume creating chances for his teammates, slides in Olic who forces another good save. Minutes later yet another is required from United’s number 1, as a Muller shot deflects off Vidic and requires a low one-handed dive.
More goalbound efforts from the impressive Altintop and Mark Van Bommel are dealt with as Bayern really begin to turn the screw. United’s 5-man midfield is getting overran, possession is being squandered all too easily and there doesn’t seem to be much answer to Ribery’s skills and pace.
A strange but firm double substitution for the visitors comes on the 70-minute mark. Park and Carrick off for Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia. Sir Alex clearly eyed more goals before the final whistle, but was sacrificing midfield steel for attacking prowess ultimately to be the reason for the game’s result?
Bayern continued to press, with Van der Sar called into action again to deny Olic after good work from Thomas Muller, who was taken off for Mario Gomez shortly after.
Then came the first upset for the away side. Gary Neville inexplicably handled the ball 20-yards from goal, picking up United’s first booking. Ribery flashed the free-kick at a separating wall, with the ball taking a harsh deflection off the heel of Rooney and beyond the hapless Van der Sar. 1-1.
A fluke, but not undeserved. Bayern should have been at least level, and were it not for the Dutch keeper, United could have found themselves staring at a mammoth challenge to overturn in 8 days time. At the same time, it was punishment for the visitors not taking their chances.
Scholes finally made his way into the book as frustration grew, the midfielder lucky to have avoided a yellow on at least two occassions in the first half alone.
On 83 minutes, Ryan Giggs – on for Nani – takes a corner with his first touch, which Nemanja Vidic runs onto perfectly but smashes a bullet header against the crossbar.
Rooney picks up a yellow for hacking down Pranjic, who subsequently goes off for Anatoliy Tymoschuk.
Entering stoppage time, panic suddenly takes over at the back for United. Evra loses Gomez, who forces another great save from Van der Sar. Moments after though, that panic would prove costly.
Another uncharacteristic blip of concentration from Evra sees Gomez pick his pocket on the corner of the box, ghost inside Ferdinand and send the United keeper the wrong way. 2-1 Bayern.
An utter suckerpunch for the away side. So often the conjurers of late goals, they allowed Munich to avenge the demons of ’99 with a taste of their own medicine. The Germans now head to Old Trafford next Wednesday with the advantage and with Sir Alex required to draw up a new masterplan.
And it will most likely be a masterplan without Wayne Rooney, for as all the headlines this morning will convey, the striker picked up an injury in the build-up to that last goal. No news yet at this early stage on how severe it is, but United and England fans will unite in hoping that the club and country talisman will be back and scoring goals very, very soon.
Almost certainly out of the pivotal clash with Chelsea on Saturday, United’s season could be over in the space of a week. It realistically remains with the rest of the squad to get a result against in-form Chelsea and overturn this result against the German giants.
What did you make of the game? Was it a fair result? And how should United go about the second leg? Dimitar Berbatov will have to step up to the mark in Rooney’s expected absence… but can he deliver?
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