Lacklustre United scrape draw

Sparta Prague 0 Manchester United 0

Sparta Prague 0 Manchester United 0

Manchester United edged towards the last 16 of the Champions League with a hard-fought point in Prague that will hardly have Arsenal quaking in their boots ahead of Sunday’s crucial Premiership showdown.

Not even the late introduction of Louis Saha and Cristiano Ronaldo could spark the visitors’ attack into life in a game that will quickly be erased from the memory unless UEFA decide Ruud van Nistelrooy deliberately elbowed Pavel Pergl in the first half.

It was United’s second goalless draw in four days, not exactly the statistic that was expected when Sir Alex Ferguson added Wayne Rooney to a £60million forward line at the end of August.

Rooney did go close twice just before the break, while late substitute Ronaldo might have done better with a couple of decent opportunities near the end but other than that it was a toothless display from the visitors.

As news filters through to his own European bolthole in Athens, Arsene Wenger will afford himself a quiet chuckle as it appears United took his advice to ‘calm down’ rather too literally.

Certainly the visitors will have to raise themselves from this slumbering effort to stand any chance of stopping the Gunners making it 50 unbeaten at Old Trafford on Sunday.

After admitting only yesterday that he had made far too many changes to his team in the opening two months of the campaign, it was something of a surprise that Ferguson elected to introduce seven new faces to his starting line-up, including a completely new midfield.

The presence of Liam Miller on the right was the most notable selection. Miller has started just one game since his summer move from Celtic but with Ronaldo rested in readiness for Sunday’s eagerly-awaited encounter with the imperious Gunners, the Ireland international was handed his chance.

Though he blotted his copybook with a booking after half-time, Miller did little wrong during an opening period in which neither ‘keeper was tested until a frantic last five minutes during which Rooney twice came close, Roy Carroll saved from Karel Poborsky and Jiri Homola headed against the bar.

Before that, the most notable incidents, other than a low Lukas Zelenka effort which the midfielder should have directed goalwards but did not, was an outbreak of violence at the home end as the game kicked off, and the challenge between van Nistelrooy and Pergl that left the Sparta man with blood streaming from his nose.

Referee Massimo de Santis was close to the action and saw nothing wrong but TV replays showed the Dutchman’s elbow clearly caught Pergl and van Nistelrooy would not be the first player to have intent determined by UEFA officials long after the event.

There was little to indicate the thrills the first half would end with but as they trooped off at the interval, both sides could count themselves unlucky not to have broken the deadlock.

Sparta ‘keeper Jaromir Blazek would certainly not have kept out Rooney’s first effort as he was totally stranded when the teenager’s shot flicked off Homola.

And Blazek was rooted to the spot again shortly afterwards when Gabriel Heinze nipped in front of Homola to reach the keeper’s short clearance and square a pass to Rooney which the former Everton man flashed an inch wide.

Within seconds, Sparta countered and Carroll beat away Poborsky’s angled drive as the Sparta skipper sensed glory against his old club. Homola met the corner with a firm header but was disappointed to see it crash off the crossbar.

The game lapsed back into a tedious stalemate until just before the hour mark, when Carroll made amends for two weak punches by scurrying back to keep out Poborsky’s goalbound lob.

It was about that point when the visitors seemed to seize the initiative. Rooney only marginally overhit an attempted through ball to Ryan Giggs and the teenager, a hat-trick hero on his sensational European bow against Fenerbahce three weeks ago, was again the provider when John O’Shea stabbed an eight-yard effort over when placed to do much better.

Sparta appeared to be fading out of the game but broke up field after one United raid had broken down and Tomas Jun found himself clean through when Zelenka had flicked a long ball into the visitors’ box.

Fortunately for United, Carroll was alert to the danger and came out quickly to block Jun’s shot with his legs and keep the Red Devils on level terms.

The introduction of Ronaldo and Saha generated little impetus, although if the Portuguese teenager had shown a slightly more composure, he could have snatched the points with two late efforts both of which were saved by Blazek.

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