ALEX FERGUSON, one wag suggested, must have mistaken the Champions League for the Carling Cup in his old age after making 10 changes for a ‘Battle of Britain’ against Rangers; but whatever the reason for his overconfidence he paid a high price with a dour goalless draw and a sickening ankle injury to Antonio Valencia that could keep the winger out for the rest of the season.
Valencia’s departure after 63 minutes may well have more meaning in the long-term than two dropped points in Group C but this was still not a happy night for Manchester United — and even Ferguson was subdued as he surveyed the wreckage.
“He has a dislocation and a fracture,” the Scot said. “He has an operation Wednesday morning. It was a really innocuous challenge, really. When you saw the Rangers playing waving, you knew it was a bad one. It’s similar to the injury Alan Smith got, so you are talking about the rest of the season.”
Valencia’s injury is a body blow to a United side stumbling from one problem to another right now — and with Liverpool visiting Old Trafford on Sunday there is potential for further slip-ups.
There are mitigating circumstances, not least the distraction of Wayne Rooney’s off-field misdemeanours, but taking into account a disappointing draw at Fulham and two goals conceded in injury time at Everton last weekend to go from 3-1 up to 3-3 at the final whistle, this has not been a good fortnight, despite the welcome return yesterday of Rio Ferdinand from injury.
Ferguson, who caused a rumpus by leaving out Rooney at Everton last weekend to protect him from verbal abuse from the Goodison crowd, courted controversy again last night with an ineffectual display.
In all the United manager made a staggering 10 changes to his team with only midfielder Darren Fletcher surviving the cull and players such as Dimitar Berbatov, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes and Nani not even included in the squad of 18. Ferguson has been in the game far too long to be accused of naivety, so he must have known he was taking a risk and it certainly came back to haunt him.
“I wanted to find out about one or two players,” he claimed. “Chris Smalling has not played in a first-team game and Chicharito with international duties and travelling has precluded him from a lot of games. We wanted to see how Chicharito could do in a whole game. We left Berbatov out and his form has been absolutely fantastic. His ability to create in tight situations would have made a difference.”
That was as about as near as Ferguson go to an admission of guilt. Certainly the effect of his tinkering, combined with Rangers’ effective tactics, was a miserable football match.
In fairness, Rangers performed their task admirably, squeezing play in the centre of the field and denying United time and space and they deserved their point despite the negative display.
Maybe Ferguson’s team changes did little to lift the crowd but whatever the reason for Old Trafford’s sleepiness there was little to awaken them from their slumbers other than a few long-range efforts from Darron Gibson. The Irishman went close twice in each half.
Rooney meanwhile drew groans when he broke through on goal in the 22nd minute but made a mess of finding the unmarked Javier Hernandez alongside him; and it took until the 38th minute for him to have a shot on goal.
There was a further scare shortly before half-time when he seemed to turn his left ankle but he returned for the second half and in the end lasted the 90 minutes.
The game’s most crucial moment came after 63 minutes when Valencia was left writhing in agony following an innocuous challenge with Kirk Broadfoot and was carried off to hospital. The former Wigan man will be missed because his service from the right has been an important part of United’s armoury over the last year — although not last night when he succumbed to the same malaise as the rest of his team-mates.
“Any of their players would get into 80 or 90% of Premier League teams and Wayne Rooney would get into them all,” said Walter Smith.
True, but whatever the talents of your squad you have to pick the right team. Whisper it quietly but, for once, maybe Mr Ferguson got it wrong.
Subs for Man United: Evans for Silva 75, Giggs for Valencia 63, Owen for Park 75).
Subs for Rangers: Lafferty for Miller 81.
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