Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Decider at the theatre of dreams

Sir Alex Ferguson will have to do something he has managed just once in 13 meetings and defeat Jose Mourinho after a masterful Manchester United display went unrewarded after a goalless draw in the San Siro.

Despite a succession of clear chances, including one in the last seconds that Cristiano Ronaldo cannoned into Julio Cesar's chest, a vital away goal would not come.

So while Sir Alex Ferguson's men will be confident of getting a goal in the second leg at Old Trafford, they remain vulnerable to Mourinho's guile.

It was expected a meeting between the undisputed kings of Italy and England would be a keenly-fought affair with little give on either side.

In fact the first half turned out to be a landslide in every respect but the scoreboard.

The sheer speed of United's movement caught Inter napping almost as much as Ferguson's decision to leave Wayne Rooney on the bench.

Their swift snappy passing, allied to movement off the ball gave Inter a problem they struggled to solve. Indeed, they would not have managed it without an outstanding individual performance from Julio Cesar.

Brazilian goalkeepers may have been derided down the years but no-one was complaining among a noisy and increasingly agitated home contingent as Cesar made a string of saves to keep United at bay.

Ryan Giggs was denied at one point but the main victim was Ronaldo, who took aim with a series of free-kicks and found the Brazilian in the way every time, sometimes theatrically but always effectively.

Ronaldo did beat him once with a point-blank header but it flashed wide.

The world player of the year was a conclusive winner of his head-to-head duel with Zlatan Ibrahimovic though.

Mourinho rates the Swede as number one on the planet right now but there was precious little evidence to back up such a lofty claim as United's defence, reinforced by John O'Shea and Jonny Evans - who both overcame fitness concerns to start - kept him at bay, with Adriano virtually non-existent.

The major worry, especially with a coach as wily as Mourinho in the opposing dug-out, must be United's failure to score.

It was not as though they lacked the opportunity. Lone striker Dimitar Berbatov surged clear in the box at one point, only to look up and see no-one in support as he prepared to cross.

Inter's frustrations were summed up just before the break when Cesar's deputy, Francesco Toldo, was booked for protesting on the touchline at another decision that had gone against his team.

Ferguson must have sensed Inter would finally flex their muscles after the break, and so it proved.

Adriano had already flashed one shot wide when he crashed to the turf under Ferdinand's challenge as Javier Zanetti crossed.

The Brazilian screamed for a penalty but TV replays suggested Spanish referee Luis Medina Cantalejo was right to say no.

But Inter tails were up and Stankovic was narrowly wide with another shot before attempting to release Ibrahimovic, who had strayed narrowly offside when otherwise he would have been clear.

United were not quite clinging on as their opponents had been earlier. However, they were being tested and it took them some time to regain their earlier composure.

Their goal threat had become sporadic with Zanetti's far-post clearance to prevent Giggs reaching Ronaldo's low cross the summit of United's danger until the veteran Welshman was allowed to gallop into the Inter box, where his shot was blocked by Ivan Cordoba and Carrick fired the rebound over.

After seeing Cordoba fail to make the most of a Mario Balotelli corner, Ferguson gave Rooney seven minutes to make a difference, and was no doubt not meaning for Rooney to pick up a booking for a foul on Stankovic.

However, it was a peripheral moment, with Ronaldo taking centre stage one last time to unleash another 20-yard thunderbolt. Cesar remained defiant and saved with his chest.

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