Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Manchester United 2 - 0 Internazionale

Jose Mourinho endured anything but a special night at Old Trafford as Manchester United continued their remarkable season by reaching the Champions League quarter-finals with a 2-0 win over Inter Milan.

Five years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson felt Porto fluked their way to a two-legged success at exactly the same stage of the competition, and that was the result which launched Mourinho's career.

This time, United were the team who carried the good fortune as goals at the beginning of each half from Nemanja Vidic and Cristiano Ronaldo proved enough to cast aside a mistake-riddled performance from which Inter should have profited.

Victory keeps the Red Devils on course for an unprecedented quintuple and, to Ferguson's satisfaction, allowed him to record a second win in 14 head-to-head duels with Mourinho as, in front of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the cream of England proved too strong for the best of Italy.

Yet, as good as United were in the San Siro a fortnight ago, they were bad in the opening period here.

The number of sloppy passes quickly reached double figures and kept going, with Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney particular offenders.

Indeed while Rooney at least managed one decent 30-yard effort that flew wide, and eventually a telling cross for the second goal, Carrick could hardly do a thing right.

Inter were not particularly brilliant. Yet as it became obvious their opponents were not the supermen their domestic form makes them out to be, the Italians grew in confidence, no-one more so than Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Anonymous in the first leg and initially deprived of his regular strike partner Adriano, who started on the bench, the Swede was transformed.

Ibrahimovic had already looked dangerous when he found space between Rio Ferdinand and John O'Shea and rose to meet Maicon's curling free-kick.

The header took the ball downwards, then back up, flicking against the bar with Edwin van der Sar beaten.

Ibrahimovic then turned provider, floating over a superb cross for Dejan Stankovic, who had got behind Patrice Evra only to scoop his far-post shot over when he should have done much better.

In between, Van der Sar got the faintest of touches, unseen by the referee, to a Stankovic snap-shot which might just have crept in without the veteran Dutchman's intervention.

Apart from Rooney's shot, United's response was one good chance for John O'Shea. The Irishman continued his gallop into the Inter box as Ryan Giggs - the one menacing figure in a red shirt - and Rooney opened the Serie A leaders up, only to stroke his shot against Julio Cesar's legs.

How fortunate therefore that the Red Devils had got their noses in front before their below-par performance became apparent.

Vidic was clearly eager to make up for lost time, having been suspended for the first leg due to his dismissal at the Club World Cup.

And when Giggs floated over a fourth-minute corner, the Serbian took maximum advantage of Patrick Vieira's ill-timed slip to steer a precise header into the bottom corner.

It was the first notable event of an evening that began with Mourinho taking a slow stroll out of the tunnel, to his dug-out, totally on his own before the teams had entered the pitch, shaking hands on the way, as he did before the second half as well.

The bravado merely fuelled a growing belief that, in Mourinho's mind at least, he will be the man who eventually replaces Ferguson, providing of course the Scot does leave at some point in the next 20 years, by which time he will be 87.

Mourinho must have felt 87 four minutes after the restart as Inter found themselves two adrift.

The Italians seemed to have regained the initiative in the early moments of the second period. But when Giggs and Scholes presented Rooney with a decent crossing opportunity, Ronaldo rose to power home.

Any feeling the visitors might claw their way back was dispelled just before the hour, when Adriano, given his head in response to Inter's worsening position, volleyed against the inside of a post and saw the rebound bounce to safety.

Ferguson would no doubt claim it was the luck United were missing five long years ago.

This time there was no touchline charge for the Special One.

Berbatov and Rooney drew good saves out of Julio Cesar as United look to build on their lead, while the introduction of Luis Figo offered Inter another attacking outlet which resulted in Ibrahimovic accidentally turning another effort fractionally wide, admittedly after a couple of pretty dismal attempts at goal.

With the game won, United's swagger returned as Mourinho and Inter slipped slowly away.

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