United finally find focus to storm through
Football's clichés and truisms can be irritating and banal, but every now and again they have a relevance. Rather than, in the game's lexicon, taking it one game at a time or only thinking about the next match, Manchester United became distracted. The imposing sight of Chelsea on the horizon blinded them to Moscow's army club on the march.
Then, trailing 3-1 and facing one of their more ignominious defeats, they were transformed. The immediacy of the occasion took over, United surged forwards towards the Stretford End with renewed vigour and rousing effort. Chelsea became the submerged subplot, CSKA Moscow the focus of attention and the subject of a bombardment. Long-term planning was abandoned, the here and now became everything.
The complacency that spread from team selection to performance ended when Wayne Rooney made a premature return from paternity leave. In an instant, they went from insipid to inspired. A glorified Carling Cup team started to resemble the Champions League finalists again. First Paul Scholes and then Antonio Valencia struck in a trademark act of escapology to salvage a point and, in the process, qualification.
Without finding the target, Rooney found the spark United had been lacking. But for a brilliant display of goalkeeping, he would have scored. First Igor Akinfeev made a superlative double save to deny Michael Owen and Rooney; he thwarted the substitute a second time two minutes later after Federico Macheda headed against the post.
But pressure told. Scholes headed in a Gary Neville free kick, the sort of goal that had appeared an anachronism from the midfielder in a match when the right back, charging forward at will, appeared to have been transported back a few years. Then, in added time, Valencia's shot took a huge deflection off Georgi Schennikov to wrong-foot Akinfeev. A frantic finale was completed by the 96th-minute dismissal of Deividas Semberas.
"If you want excitement, come to Old Trafford," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "One of the great pleasures of managing this football club is to get finishes like that tonight. It was just fantastic."
Before then, it was frustrating. Given the cushion of an impeccable start to the group, it wasn't quite playing Russian roulette, but United appeared to be shooting themselves in the foot. Instead they ended firing shots at all angles, looking for another implausible victory to cap another exceptional comeback.
That was barely credible when United were outnumbered in midfield and unimpressive in defence. "With the players I had available it was the right team to pick," the manager insisted. When his reserves faltered, however, Ferguson sent for reinforcements in the shape of Rooney and Patrice Evra to provide an injection of energy. The plan to spare both for Chelsea had to be abandoned. "Wayne was a safety player for us. If we needed him, he was there. But I would have preferred to leave him on the bench."
Prior to his arrival, Owen had taken one chance in the first half but spurned several more in a display to provide fuel for his advocates and his detractors alike. Indeed, had he been more clinical, Rooney might not have been required. "We should have been four up before they got a goal," Ferguson insisted.
But while CSKA ended the game relying on one of their prodigies, the agile Akinfeev, they began it with another, the inventive Alan Dzagoev, impressing. The 19-year-old Russia international appears another Andrei Arshavin in the making with an ability to glide away from defenders and score audacious, outstanding goals.
The defence and goalkeeper could be faulted for his strike, but the attacker has to be acclaimed. This was magnificent. Tomas Necid chested the ball into Dzagoev's path and the teenager sped away while a hesitant Jonny Evans was reluctant to make a challenge, before unleashing a ferocious shot from an improbable angle.
The second goal involved another assist from Necid, an intelligent target man who proved able to pick out his advancing team-mates. It was apparent again in CSKA's second goal. He laid the ball on to Milos Krasic and the Serb rounded Edwin van der Sar before spinning and shooting in.
Having scored with his left foot, Dzagoev provided a goal with his right. His free kick was headed in by an utterly unmarked Vasili Berezutski at the back post.
"That is unlike us," said Ferguson. "I think that's the first goal we have lost on a set-piece for near enough a year." Set-piece fallibility may be unlike United, but comebacks are all too typical. Familiarity does not take away the excitement they generate and the longest-serving manager around was as energised as anyone.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Igor Akinfeev - "Fantastic," according to Ferguson, who nonetheless denied he is planning a bid for CSKA's precocious goalkeeper. On this evidence, Akinfeev looks superior to Van der Sar, let alone Ben Foster and Tomasz Kuszczak. He was so unfortunate with the equaliser.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Nemanja Vidic is due to be fit to face Chelsea. If Jonny Evans and Wes Brown were auditioning for a place alongside him, however, both were guilty of hesitancy. Fabio, replaced by Evra, could not make the most of his opportunity while Nani, removed for Rooney, was wasteful again. On the plus side, the return of Darren Fletcher was a benefit in midfield while the raiding Neville and the determined Macheda did their respective causes no harm.
CSKA MOSCOW VERDICT: For much of the match, they appeared the superior side, marrying technical excellence with a prodigious work rate. Krasic, praised by Ferguson before the game, excelled on the right while Dzagoev and Necid both enhanced their reputations.
PAYING THE PENALTY: After a dubious dismissal in the semi-final of the Champions League last season, Darren Fletcher got a questionable booking again. Adjudged to have dived, he was actually fouled in the penalty area by Aleksei Berezutski. "I can't believe that decision. It was one of the worst I've seen in my lifetime," said Ferguson, evidently no fonder of European referees than he is of their English counterparts. It was a poor decision, though. "UEFA should look at that," added the United boss. "They won't but they should."