Date:Tuesday March 4 2008
We equalled Juventus's record of ten straight home wins in the competition and advanced to the quarter-finals. It's a fact so we should be happy.
I was happy, too, when I saw Fergie's starting line-up. The combination of Carrick and Fletcher provided the backbone for some excellent performances (4-0 v Arsenal, 7-1 v Roma) and I felt Anderson could be in his element here.
In the first ten minutes, it was the usual nervy stuff. United were not patient enough, hoofing up the ball towards lone striker Rooney at the first opportunity. However, we soon settled down and began to dominate.
Until the half hour mark, Lyon barely crossed the halfway line and posed no attacking threat whatsoever apart from a long shot from Toulalan which was saved well by Van der Sar. But we had the majority of possession, Carrick's angled passes and Fletcher's energy told while Nani, Ronaldo and Evra all managed to get behind the defence regulary with ease.
Their crosses and final passes were just as regularly sloppy and therefore clear-cut chances were virtually non-existent in this game. United looked by far the more dangerous team though and you began to wonder how the French plan to score a goal?
The breakthrough, somewhat strangely, arrived after a quiet period when there were a lot of midfield tussling but very little genuine quality. However, Nani's pass to Brown on the right was full of real quality and the overlapping right-back provided a good cross. Aided slightly by Grosso, the ball found its way to Anderson who either scuffed his shot or tried to set up Ronaldo, we'll never know but the ball found its way to the Portuguese winger. Clerc could have cleared the ball but he somehow failed, and Ronaldo produced a beautiful touch to get it past him and then rifle it into the back of the net.
United did not try to kill the tie off in the remaining 6 minutes though Lyon were stunned by the goal as it came out of nowhere to be honest. But at least we were set to advance to the last eight.
Here I was hoping that in the second 45 minutes, United would pick their opponents off with pacey counter-attacks while keeping it tight at the back. Well, the defensive part of the plan was certainly flawless as was the performance of the back four but on the other end of the pitch, things were not very encouraging.
Fergie has often been criticised in the past for being overcautious and stifling in Europe and it seemed he stifled his own team again. His favourite mantra about European competition is that you have to keep the ball and this mission was accomplished flawlessly during most of the first half.
However, in the second half we did not keep the ball - we kept giving it away cheaply. No change of rhytm, no patient build-up, we did not try to draw out Lyon and hit them on the break. What did we do? Get the ball, hoof it up at once or pass it to someone who was trapped. If someone found a teammate who had some space that particular mate did not take the ball down and turned around to pick the best pass, they invariably chose to try some kind of Hollywood pass, we tried to play very directly without any sophistication or patience...
Lyon sensed that we are up for grabs and strung good passes together. Yet they spectacularly failed to overcome two difficulties, namely Darren Fletcher and our back four.
The Scottish midfield has once again demonstrated that we can rely on him: he was our best tackler and, somewhat unexpectedly, our best passer of the night - it is a bit sad that the latter is rather an indication of our sloppiness than his sterling display...
But the real credit must go to the defence who, not for the first and hopefully not for the last time, were totally unbreachable, the back four was an immovable object where even Lyon's most promising attacks faltered, with one obvious exception: subsitute's Keita's burst into the box and the subsequent shot that hit the post. It woke up United, it seemed though looking at the replays one must say Van der Sar covered it.
But as I said, it woke the team up and in the last 10 minutes, with Tevez increasingly active and Rooney finally enjoying some space, we went for the kill. That Rooney missed two golden chances is even smaller surprise than that he beat defenders with embarassing ease when he had space to run at them. Unfortunately, he displayed his worrying knack of not scoring when a goal would kill the game off... But in the end, United got through and that's what matters.
It wasn't a sterling display, far from that but when our usual attacking excellence disappears (as it did in these two games against Lyon) then there is always that formidable rearguard to rely on. But we should not be overreliant on them... not even in Europe, with all these attackers we have.
On a final note: have you noticed how we tend to struggle to break down French teams? Bordeaux, Marseille, Lille four times, now Lyon... they have a knack of nullifying our attack in a way that even Italian teams rarely do. Interesting. But that's for a later debate as we won't face a French team in this competition again this season. Fortunately.
Date:Tuesday March 4 2008
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