|photo by jdolenga||via PhotoRee|
So it's a relatively bare-bones United squad making the trip to Turkey for the game tonight. Out are Ferdinand, Evans, Giggs, Gibson, Giggs, Macheda, Rooney and Neville, and in are Smalling, Bebe, Obertan, Fabio, and Rafael. Surpirisingly, VdS gets the start between the sticks, probably due to Fergie's desire to increase the odds of keeping a clean sheet tonight. Although Sir Alex insisted in his press conference yesterday that Champions League is the most competitive football on the planet, today's game may not be be Exhibit A for the defense. I will, however, happily agree with him that watching football on a European night is infinitely better than a trip to the dentist (Sorry, Dr. Marks).
Tonight's game could be important, and if United gain the three valuable points that are there for the taking, they will be standing alone on top of Group C with 10 points in hand, typically enough to ensure qualification into the tournament's next round (even with two games still remaining). Given that United have only allowed three shots on target in all three of their prior games, and Bursaspor has yet to score in their Champions League debut, the Red Devils are heavily favored in the match, even though it's an away fixture
It's appalingly loud at the Attaturk Stadium as the game kicks off; and it's even harder to believe that only 24,000 fans can make so much noise.
As is typical of any trip to Turkey in the Champions League, the crowd serves as a 12th man for the home team, attempting to intimidate United through sheer volume alone.
Although the play is mixed for the first 20 minutes, the more threatening play definitely emanates from the English visitors. United's first attack runs down the left side of the pitch thorugh Patrice Evra, but peters out limply with a soft Berbatov header right at the Turkish keeper. A minute or two later Rafael parades down the right flank, and it's obvious that United are going to try and spread the ball out wide tonight in an effort to gain threatening positions.
Midway through the half Evra is guilty of a shocking misplay that almost gifts the home side the lead, but Sir Alex's hunch pays off as Vandy denies an open Bursaspor attacker with his shoulder. The former French captain still seems strangely at sea this season, with such mistakes now becoming an increasingly common part of his game. More worrisome from United's point of view, though, is the exit of Nani in the game's 24th minute with some sort of unexplained knock, with Park Ji Sung being introduced as his replacement.
Although United have the better of the attack, the Turks are not outclassed by any means, easily doubling the number of shots they've placed on goal for the three prior games to tonight in the first half alone.
It's United, in the form of Paul Scholes, that are the first to put the ball in the back of the net, but Scholes' effort is properly denied by the referee as the United midfieler is judged guilty of using his arm to play the ball through the scrum in front of goal. United continue to ratchet up the pressure before halftime in an ultimately futile effort to alter the deadlock before the break.
Shortly after the re-start, though, it's Darren Fletcher who gived United a deseved lead, and the Scot is left with little work to do as he is picked out in a shockingly open position inside the box by Michael Carrick, whose vision and aggressiveness does seem to be improving over his last couple of outings
United spend more time on the ball in the second half, as the agressive pressing style employed by Bursaspor in the first half seems to be taking its toll on tired Turkish legs. Although Bursaspor continues to soldier on, they are hard pressed to beat Van der Sar, who is seemingly standing in the exact right position each time the Turks shoot the ball (either that, or the Turks have been trained to shoot right at the opposing goalie, but I'm thinking this is rather unlikely).
United take the air out of the ball for much of the second half, as if daring the Turks to attack them to get it back. Instead of attacking, the Red Devils prefer to pass it back and forth in midfield in neat little triangles in order to draw the Turks out of their shell.
Bebe comes on for the goalscorer Fletcher in the 62nd minute to freshen the United attack and get some more first team minutes under his quicksilver legs. As the game enters its final quarter, even the vaunted Turkish crowd has gone as quiet as a Nancy Pelosi political rally on election eve 2010, as if lulled into a deep sleep by the action (or more properly, the lack of it) on the pitch.
Gabriel Obertan eventually rouses the small crowd of several hundred visiting fans as he uncorks an absolute stunner in the 73rd minute, picked out by Park Si Sung before juking his defender loose and driving the ball into the roof of the net. It's a nifty goal for the Frenchman, who has not otherwise made much of an impression on the game to date.
Although the outcome looked carved in stone prior to Obertan's rocket, it must look like all 1,000-plus pages of Tolstoy's War and Peace carved word by word into stone after the strike. Two minutes later and it's Bebe adding to the United total, gifted a beautiful pass by Scholes and chaneling Michael Owen as he rolls the ball off the outside of his right foot and into the back Bursaspor net. Although the scoreline may be said to very slightly flatter the Red Devils at this point, the second half goals have been coming as the Turks have faded in the game's final minutes.
Although Bursaspor have outshot United by game end, it's the Reds in control all the way, cruising home on top of the Group and well on their way to qualifying for the knockout phase of the tournament. The home crowd celebrates nonetheless, offering all fans worldwide a view of the passion and celebration that accompanies the game we all love.
At full time it's United 3 - Bursaspor 0, and I'm farlieonfootie for November 3.