In a week where late goals have peppered the Premier League title race, it is perhaps apt that tonight’s pulsating clash at Old Trafford between the Champions of England & Portugal should feature not one, but two late twists in the tale.
Manchester United looked to have followed up their scarcely-deserved success over Aston Villa on Sunday with another against FC Porto following substitute Carlos Tevez’s 85th minute strike, but this time found themselves on the receiving end of a sucker punch a minute from time from another substitute- Mariano Gonzalez, which leaves Sir Alex Ferguson’s side (probably) needing to become the first English side to win in the Estadio do Dragão in order to secure a semi-final berth.
The truth is it could actually have been worse for the home side. The defensive insecurities and midfield sloppiness which have crept into their play over the past month were in clear evidence tonight as their confident visitors produced a committed, confident display which could well have yielded more than the two away goals they eventually settled for.
Ferguson was keen to stress the influence that two games in little more than 48 hours had on his players, despite making four changes from the side that were pushed so hard by Aston Villa at the weekend. In came suspension-free Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes & Wayne Rooney, whilst Park Ji-Sung’s industry replaced Tevez’s.
And in the opening minutes the word “jaded” was not even coming close to describing his side. Lisandro Lopez- this season’s third top scorer in the competition- had already drawn a save from Edwin Van der Sar by the time Cristiano Ronaldo lost possession cheaply on halfway, allowing Cristian Rodriguez to turn Jonny Evans with ease and steer a left foot shot beyond the Dutch keeper’s grasp and into the corner. There were just four minutes on the clock.
As on Sunday, United needed a helping hand from their opponents in order to get a foothold in the game. And for James Milner, now read Bruno Alves. The highly-rated centre back has been linked strongly with Real Madrid in the Spanish press, and on this showing he looks a shoe-in for a stint at the Bernabeu.
It was his poorly aimed, poorly executed backpass which gave Wayne Rooney the freedom of Old Trafford to pick his spot beyond the stranded Helton and restore parity. Rooney’s celebration was one of relief, his mood reflected the rest of the stadium.
But if the Old Trafford faithful thought that such a gift would galvanise their side, they were mistaken. The midfield play of Lucho Gonzalez & the impressive Fernando outshone the often sloppy work of Paul Scholes & Michael Carrick, whilst both John O’Shea & Patrice Evra were overworked and looked bereft of conviction defensively.
The result was space and time for Porto to work their neat one-two’s, with strikers Lisandro & the aptly-named “Hulk” taking it in turns to drop off and find space to turn and worry the increasingly exposed Vidic & Evans. Lisandro was inches away from connecting at the far post, whilst Rodriguez headed straight at Van der Sar from a deflected Lucho cross.
United were working hard, but often found their attacking play marred by sloppiness and some rugged Porto defending. O’Shea in particular had a torrid night, which was unfortunate in that he seemed to be the United player with the most space to operate in from his right back slot. Time and time again Carrick, Rooney & Scholes invited the Irishman to deliver some quality from the wing, time and time again he failed.
It took the half-time interval to restore a bit of order to their play, and within minutes of the re-start they had worked Helton twice, first through Rooney’s measured (perhaps?) chip from 20 yards, then through Vidic’s powerful header from the hastily-introduced Ryan Giggs’ corner.
It stirred the crowd into life, and the tempo of the game became almost basketball-like. Carrick’s influence grew, he assumed the role of creative fulcrum with relish, whilst Rooney’s work-rate and desire made him far more threatening than the subdued Ronaldo.
Still Porto threatened with almost every break however, the space afforded between the United midfield and defence allowed Lisandro to test Van der Sar from the edge of the box, and the Dutchman had to beat away a fierce drive from the impressive left back Cissokho soon after. There were even fanciful claims for a penalty as Hulk tumbled under a committed challenge from Tevez in the box, but replays showed contact was minimal.
Tevez had been introduced for the waning Scholes with eighteen minutes remaining, and like Federico Macheda on Sunday, looked to have made a match-winning entrance when with five minutes remaining, the Argentine showed a penalty-box prowess that had been missing throughout to nip in front of Alves and prod high into the net at the near post from Rooney’s delightful flick. Old Trafford breathed its 125th sigh of relief over the past three days, Tevez celebrated with due passion.
But Porto had their own Argentinean ace up their sleeve, and a minute from time Lisandro lifted a ball into the box from the right hand corner of the area, O’Shea’s glancing touch cut out Gary Neville, and Mariano Gonzalez had enough time to get the ball down at the far post and sidefoot past the body of Van der Sar for a priceless second away goal.
Old Trafford was stunned. Neville appealed for…..well, something. Van der Sar beat the ground in frustration, Ferguson’s face went a strange shade. Well, a stranger shade.
In truth it was no more than the visitors deserved, their willingness to play football in a positive manner was a refreshing contrast to the bus-parking fare often served up by sides whose bravado seems to be declared and detained at Manchester airport’s customs gate. In Lucho they had the game’s outstanding player, and in Lisandro & Hulk they had two strikers who gave United’s much-vaunted defence as tough an evening as they will have had all season.
For United, there were positives. Their away form in the Champions League is something pretty special, and they do only require a single goal victory in the return leg. But the questions still remain.
Right back appears a problem area in the absence of Wes Brown and Rafael Da Silva, neither O’Shea or Neville have convinced there in the past few days, whilst on the other flank Patrice Evra’s performance level has dipped notably, although his attacking impetus remains undaunted.
In the centre Ferguson bemoaned a groin injury sustained by young Evans, which may have hampered his performance, but there is still a more porous feel to United’s backline currently, with even Vidic looking susceptible, particularly to the high ball from deep.
Ferguson himself conceded that his side are “conceding soft goals at the moment” and, whilst citing fatigue as a possible reason, also criticised his side for “lapses in concentration that will always be punished at this level” and for “failing to see out the game”.
One of his favourite sayings is that United never make it easy for themselves, it was dusted off with relish this evening.