Gers punished for negative tactics...
A goal from Wayne Rooney on his return to the Manchester United starting line-up was enough to seal a 1-0 over a negative Rangers at Ibrox and send the Premier League side into the knockout round of the Champions League.
The Scottish champions played with five defenders and United looked comfortable for the majority of the game, while Rooney looked lively and the England striker had a number of chances to seal the victory before his 85th minute penalty left Rangers facing Europa League football.
Rangers’ manager Walter Smith’s decision to stick with so many defenders allowed Sir Alex Ferguson's men an easy start to the game – with the home side deep line allowing United far too much room on the ball. The Premier League side started the game at a quick tempo – and had a strong penalty appeal turned in the opening minutes.
Dimitar Berbatov beat Steven Davis to the ball and was just inside the box when the make-shift right-back tangled with the Bulgarian from behind. Replays showed that it was a clear penalty but referee Massimo Busacca waved play on, despite the much maligned assistant referee positioned behind the goal line being in a perfect position to see the incident.
And it was Berbatov who perhaps should have put United ahead just five minutes later. Fabio did well on the left flank and his cross found the Bulgarian unmarked in the box. The looping cross meant that the striker had to generate most of the power but nonetheless should have done better than to head straight at Allan McGregor in the Rangers goal.
Despite United’s early dominance, it was the home side who nearly took a surprise lead on the 15 minute mark. A deep free-kick lofted into the United area was flicked on by veteran centre-half David Weir towards Kenny Miller. The angle made it difficult for the lone striker but he will feel he should have done better with his header that crept narrowly wide of Edwin van der Sar’s goal.
The away side continued to control the game – aided by a Rangers team that had clearly been sent out by Smith to not concede at all costs. Lone striker Miller was often 20-yards away from the nearest player in blue and too many of the Rangers midfielders played aimless long balls for the frustrated forward to chase.
It was Rooney, making his first start for United since signing a new contract and returning from an ankle injury, who was the next United player to have a sniff of goal. First the England striker scuffed a volley that was far from easy to convert and then moments later there was a glimpse of the Rooney that United fans are hoping to see more of. Picking up the ball about 30-yards from goal, the striker drove at the Rangers defence but his shot was well blocked by Kirk Broadfoot.
On the half hour mark Rangers showed that it was possible to cause United problems if they aborted their ultra-defensive tactics and allowed a few players to support Miller.
A poor pass out of defence by John O’Shea found Vladimir Weiss just inside the United half. The winger, on loan from United’s rivals Manchester City, had midfield runners inside him and surprisingly it was defender Broadfoot who came bursting forward. His power took him past three United players before he was tripped.
From the resulting free-kick Johnny Evans did enough to ensure that Weir could not get a head goal-wards. The 40-year-old defender had a half-hearted appeal for a penalty but there did not look to be enough contact from Evans to warrant such a decision.
Rooney came centimetres from putting United head in the 40th minute when he rose highest to meet Fabio’s cross. The striker flicked the ball towards goal and was unlucky to see his header clip the crossbar on the way over.
The half ended with more pressure from the away side – with Paul Scholes being allowed far too much space to pull the strings in midfield by the 19-year-old Kyle Hutton - making his European debut. But for all United’s possession and neat Arsenal-like passes across the Rangers box, they failed to trouble McGregor – and it was Rangers who should have gone into the break 1-0 up.
A neat pass by Steven Naismith at the end of the best move of the half saw Miller in behind the static United defence racing towards the Van der Sar’s goal from an extremely tight angle - but the Scotland striker chose the wrong option and his shot was easily saved by the Dutch keeper. If Miller had taken the time to look up, he would have seen Weiss - who had timed his run from midfield brilliantly - perectly positioned for a simple tap-in.
With Valencia 4-0 up at home to Bursaspor, Rangers started the second half knowing that only a win would see them in with a chance of qualifying for the next stage. But it was United who came close to taking the lead just a minute after the restart.
A free-kick in a central position roughly 30-yards from McGregor’s goal was bent just wide by Rooney. The striker – booed by the home fans every time he touched the ball – choose accuracy over power and his curled effort was never going to be saved by the diving McGregor. Fortunately for the Scots however, it was also a yard or two wide of the left hand post.
Five minutes later it was Berbatov who had a good chance to open the scoring. The Bulgarian has not scored in his last nine games and should have done better when Giggs’ cross from the left found him in space just inside the Rangers’ box. Weir and Broadfoot should have been tighter to the striker - but his usually impeccable technical ability let him down and the left-foot volley did not trouble McGregor.
United continued to pile on the pressure and the first sign of the Rooney-Berbatov partnership clicking back into form gave Carrick an excellent chance to put United one ahead.
Berbatov’s pass found Rooney with his back to goal just outside the box and the England striker cleverly flicked the ball around his marker to Carrick – whose bursting run from midfield took him in-between two defenders. The midfielder’s low driven shot from just inside the box was well struck and McGregor did well to push it out of danger.
With 30 minutes left and the match resembling an attack versus defence training session, Rangers had the chance that their whole game-plan was set up to provide. A United attack broke down and Miller was quickly released down the left flank. With yards of grass ahead of him, Miller raced into the United half.
The Scottish striker had Naismith bursting ahead of him to his right but perhaps should have played the ball to the second wave of Hutton and McCulloch coming up behind up. If measured to perfection Millers’ through ball to Naismith would have seen his fellow Scot through on goal, but it was perhaps too ambitious and was easily intercepted by Chris Smalling.
The counter-attack seemed to give the home side confidence and they had a five minute spell in the United half. A free-kick from 35-yards out was lofted into the United box and in the same attack Naismith provided another teasing cross from deep. On both occasions the visiting defence stood firm, with Smalling and Evans – starting their first game together for United – looking in command at the back.
With 15 minutes remaining Rooney missed two more chances. Firstly another excellent cross by Giggs saw the England man in plenty of space at the near post but the striker seemed to lose his bearings and his diving header was well wide. A minute later, an intelligent chipped through ball from Berbatov saw Rooney favourite to beat Weir to the dropping ball just inside the penalty area. Uncharacteristically for the striker, he appeared to fluff his big moment and his weak shot was easily collected by McGregor.
Both sides rang the changes with ten minutes remaining and the game finely poised. United brought on Gabriel Obertan and Javier Hernandez for the disappointing Nani and Berbatov – whilst Rangers replaced the energetic Weiss with John Fleck.
With just five minutes remaining, it was Rooney who grabbed the headlines once again – scoring from the penalty spot.
A cross to the far post saw Fabio beat Naismith to the ball and head across the box. Naismith was the wrong side of the left-back and his rash attempt at a block sent the young United defender sprawling seconds after the ball had gone. Naismith protested his innocence but it was no use and it was left to Rooney to send McGregor the wrong way and celebrate in front of the delirious United supporters.
Rangers pushed for an equaliser but it was no use. The home side had defended for far too long and seemed unable to switch mentalities for the remaining minutes. United kept possession comfortably and ran the clock down – sending the English side through to the knockout stages and leaving the Scottish champions with just the Europa League for comfort.
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