Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Turkish fright for Manchester United
Richard Jolly, Old Trafford
This was more Turkish fright than Turkish delight for Manchester United.
With nervous glances at referee Wolfgang Stark and sighs of relief, they started as they finished. There was a strange symmetry of first and last in a game bookended by major misjudgements that went unpunished.
In the opening minute, as in added time, a United central defender lunged in, missed the ball and upended an opponent in the penalty area. When Jonny Evans tripped Aydin Yilmaz at the end, just as when Nemanja Vidic fouled Umut Bulet almost two hours earlier, Stark ignored Galatasaray's appeals.
As an unlucky double sandwiched an unfortunate treble for the Turkish champions, thrice denied by the frame of David De Gea's goal, United's win was attributable to the woodwork, Stark and scorer Michael Carrick in equal measure.
The result alone suggests lessons were learned from last season's European mishaps, but the performance lent itself to very different conclusions. United's first meeting with Galatasaray involved an infamous welcome to 'hell' and Sir Alex Ferguson's charges endured fresh agonies before emerging with the points.
Galatasaray scored at Old Trafford in 1993 and Fatih Terim's team almost staged a repeat. Instead, they recorded a hat-trick of near misses. Nordin Amrabat's curler clipped the bar. Hamit Altintop's drive glanced the post. Selcuk Inan's header looped over De Gea and hit the upright.
It constituted a hard luck story save for one salient detail. Instead of losing a man after seven minutes, Galatasaray conceded a goal instead. A rare instance of Carrick advancing beyond the forward line was followed by a still rarer example of a footballer desperately trying to retain his footing in the box as, when tripped by Fernando Muslera, Carrick stumbled and, although losing his balance, still scored.
It was sportsmanlike, but it also proved sage. When Rafael da Silva tumbled under Burak Yilmaz's challenge, United were awarded a spot kick. Nani's stop-start run-up preceded an unconvincing attempt that Muslera saved, completing an unwanted treble of their own. Like Robin van Persie away at Southampton and Javier Hernandez against Wigan, Nani missed a penalty.
"I thought Robin should have taken it," Ferguson said. "I think Nani just ran and grabbed the ball." Ever involved, Nani's willingness to assume responsibility backfired. "Missing the penalty kick still keeps them in the game," Ferguson remarked, lamenting the profligacy that ensured a fraught finale.
Yet it was a nervous night. Even as United excelled at the start, the visitors could have scored twice inside ten minutes. There was the thud of ball on wood at one end, the silence of a silken touch at the other.
Shinji Kagawa faded as the game went on, but he served as supplier for Nani, when Muslera first denied him, and then Carrick, when the Englishman scored. While, in many parts of the pitch, the five-yard pass can seem unspectacular, it can, when played from the edge of the penalty area, be superb, as Kagawa illustrated early on.
The role in the hole can be a Bermuda Triangle; instead the Japanese provided a bridge between attack and midfield as well as the creative fulcrum, supplying runners from deep. Against a side from the Middle East, a man from the land of the rising sun starred.
Others did not. Van Persie appeared off colour, his touch betraying him on a couple of occasions, and Antonio Valencia's crossing was unusually wayward. There were hints of frailty in the defence once again and, while Ferguson praised Galatasaray for their counter-attacking, the one-paced nature of United's central midfielders left them susceptible to the quick break.
A more athletic alternative to Carrick and Paul Scholes surfaced for the last dozen minutes. Darren Fletcher received a rapturous reception on his first appearance for ten months after a chronic bowel problem. "I think the supporters recognise what a tough time he has had and that was a mark of respect," Ferguson said. "He can only be better after tonight."
There is a collective need for improvement but as Ferguson said: "The result was the most important thing after the experience of last year." For the statisticians, it was the Scot's 100th Champions League victory, a landmark that no other manager has reached. "I've been here longer, that's why," he reasoned.
The visitors' verdict included a mention of official assistance. Vidic completed a European game for the first time since the 2011 Champions League final - he was sent off in Bucharest and stretchered off in Basel last season - but only after his first-minute alarm. The foul on Bulut prompted Terim to question Stark's eyesight.
"I think at Old Trafford he couldn't see this," he said. "Normally he could see this." 'The Emperor', as he is known, departed disappointed, the managerial godfather with another win to his name. For the 70-year-old centurion, fortune favoured the old.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Hamit Altintop. Galatasaray were impressive in possession and terrific on the counter attack. Part of a technically accomplished midfield, Altintop was excellent and, like several of his colleagues, he almost scored.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Over the 90 minutes, Carrick was their most consistent performer. Nani was a constant in their second-half chances but marred his night with the missed penalty. Javier Hernandez had two chances to seal the points in a lively cameo, but spurned both. De Gea made a fine double save on his recall but the concern should be that United allowed so many efforts on his goal.
GALATASARAY VERDICT: They have not reached the knockout stages of the Champions League for 11 years but, if they continue to perform like this, Galatasaray could be headed for the last 16 again. They may have posed a still greater threat had the prolific Bulut not gone off injured in the first half.