THE romantic in Alex Ferguson will have swooned about last night’s memorable winning goal in Porto. But the pragmatist in the Manchester United manager will probably have taken almost as much pleasure from the simple fact that his side kept a clean sheet.
Between the two, the result was a narrow but thoroughly deserved victory which suggests that reports of the champions’ demise have been premature. Without ever threatening to put Porto to the sword last night, United did enough to heal their wounded pride and restore some self-belief.
And then there was that goal…
Ronaldo is a bit like Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse Now’ – he doesn’t do much but when he does, he almost sucks the eyeballs out of your head. So how best to describe his intervention after six minutes? Superb? Stunning? Superlative? Sensational? They all come about as close as the poor Porto ‘keeper did to getting a hand to this bolt from the red. Better to take a leaf out of the Old Trafford archives and say that Ronaldo’s 40-yard screamer would have had greybeards misty-eyed at memories of Bobby Charlton. Yes, it was that good.
And on a night when Ronaldo even chased lost causes – winning a corner out of one such quest – and copped a few bruises in actually making the odd tackle, he personified all that was good about United’s display.
Ferguson, you have to imagine, has been reddening a few ears on the training ground after recent wobbles, reminding his charges that, in football, reputations are not permanent but are remade or undone with every fresh 90 minutes. Wayne Rooney is one who never needed that wake-up call but last night the hunger and work ethic which underpins his skill was evident throughout the side, even if the likes of Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and Anderson – a player whose industry and decision-making are rarely in sync — were hardly error-free.
AND THEN there was Dimitar Berbatov, a man who has all but obliterated the distinction between languid and lazy since decamping from White Hart Lane to Old Trafford. When he was beckoned back to the dug-out just past the hour mark last night, one was reminded of the instruction Ronnie Moran supposedly gave Jan Molby during the Dane’s twilight days at Anfield: “Get warmed up Jan, you’re coming off.”
But there was certainly no shortage of commitment and composure at the back where Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were men (re)united and, behind them, van der Sar exhibited the kind of safe hands – if not always the safe feet — that Petr Cech has mislaid at Stamford Bridge.
Admittedly, that pearl of a goal did gave way to the perils of the single goal lead, with United looking a tad nervous late on, though in truth, Porto never really threatened to take advantage. Which only goes to show that their spirited performance a week ago in Manchester might have had more to do with the home side’s uncharacteristic timidity than Porto’s innate cutting edge. And, to their credit, United finished the game by pressing at the other end, further evidence of the huge value of ball-carrying outlets like Ronaldo and Rooney when the pressure is on.
The Champions League has tended to turn conventional wisdom on its head in recent times. Hell, Liverpool and Chelsea have even defied the laws of physics. But, after playing like the away side at home last week, Manchester United restored the natural order in Porto – scoring early to quieten the crowd, just like the textbooks say you should, and then keeping it tight to see themselves safely through.
It all means that the quintuple is still on, though that may be a mixed blessing since something, surely, has to give. Chelsea too have a couple of big fish still to fry, but for Liverpool, even though it may be strewn with regret, the Championship road is less cluttered as a result of their exit.
United’s overcoming of difficulty could still be their rivals’ opportunity.
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