ON A day when Rafael Benitez accused Alex Ferguson of running scared, Manchester United’s defence gave their manager a real reason to look nervous as they stuttered and stumbled to a miserable 2-2 draw against Porto in the Champions League quarter-finals.
The night was summed up by an 89th minute leveller from unmarked Mariano, a goal that means United’s once invincible defence has now conceded at least two goals in each of their last four games. But there was plenty more to worry about than just statistics.
Substitute Carlos Tevez thought he had at least saved the result when he scored after 85 minutes, flashing home a near-post effort after Wayne Rooney had equalised Porto’s early opener in the first half.
But neither of those goals could hide the fact this was a miserable and worrying performance just at a stage of the season when United will need to be at their best.
Afterwards a frustrated Ferguson slammed his side’s lack of concentration. “(The result) was about right – first half they were the better side but second half we improved and got more possession,” the Scot admitted.
“But getting the (second) goal the way they did – we should really have defended that. It was a bad goal to lose.
“It’s been a hard two days for them (after playing Aston Villa on Sunday), but they were lacking in concentration.”
Ferguson – who revealed centre-half Jonny Evans had limped out with a groin injury – added: “You get a 2-1 lead with four or five minutes left, you really should see it out. We’ve got a game on Saturday (at Sunderland), there’s still a lot going for us, but it’s a difficult game now in Porto, no question of that.”
Benitez, piqued by Ferguson’s suggestion that the loser between his side and Chelsea in the other quarter-final tonight would be left scarred in the title race, had opened the evening with a now trademark attack.
Ferguson, he said, had a nasty habit of talking too much about his rivals and was probably ‘a little bit scared’.
Well Fergie was certainly shaking after this display.
Yes, United were missing Rio Ferdinand due to a groin injury but there can be no excuses for a shambolic first-half display that mirrored the panic seen in the early stages against Aston Villa last weekend.
United had Nemanja Vidic back at the heart of their defence and John O’Shea in at right-back, so there really was no excuse for what transpired. The first 45 minutes was error-strewn, nervy and careless.
Lisandro had already gone close when Porto took the lead in the fourth minute, after United twice gave the ball away to their grateful opponents.
First Ronaldo saw his pass on the left flank intercepted as he attempted to send Rooney away; then, as the ball was swiftly whipped into the box, Johnny Evans lazily cleared it straight to the feet of Cristian Rodriguez a few yards away.
To his credit the Porto man produced the first piece of real class of the evening, beating his marker before curling home a low and precise shot past Edwin van der Sar.
United were struggling and only found a way back into the match thanks to a massive mistake at the other end of the field.
Bruno Alves inexplicably sent a back-pass towards his keeper without looking after 15 minutes – only for Rooney to casually intercept and slip home an equaliser.
The majority of the Old Trafford crowd heaved a collective sigh of relief and sat back to enjoy the rest of the match, confident all the silliness was over. But they were wrong.
In the immediate aftermath of the goal United’s defence didn’t so much wobble as trip over themselves in a flabbergasting display of uncoordinated mayhem.
Porto must have created five or six excellent chances before half-time, each one leaving the home defence looking increasingly panic-stricken as Meireles, Hulk and Rodriguez, twice, all took pot-shots at van der Sar. This was not the United the home fans had come to see.
It wasn’t only the defence who were out of sorts, either. The number of mistakes made in midfield, even from the usually reliable Scholes, was quite astounding while Park Ji-Sung was virtually a passenger.
If ever a hairdryer was called for at half-time this was the occasion and it’s hard to imagine that Ferguson held back.
If so he must be losing his touch because there was little visible difference in his team’s disposition after the break.
Rooney and Vidic twice went close with headers but Lisandro and Fernando both forced van der Sar into excellent saves at the other end as Porto grew in confidence later on.
United, despite all their problems, thought they had won it when Gary Neville’s long throw was cleverly flicked on by Rooney and Tevez pounced at the near post.
But Porto, just as they had done when Jose Mourinho raced up the touchline to celebrate in 2004, had the last laugh when Lisandro broke menacingly down the right after 89 minutes. His cross floated over the entire United defence leaving Mariano to chest it down and fire home at the far post.
United running scared? Maybe not. But they are certainly running into trouble.
Subs for Man United: Giggs for Park (58), Neville for Evans (72), Tevez for Scholes (72).
Subs for FC Porto: Costa for Raul Meireles (79), Mariano Gonzalez for Rodriguez (79), Madrid for Costa (90).
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