|photo by Jeffrey Beall||via PhotoRee|
United attempts to book a place in the knockout stages of the Champions League tonight with a victory over Rangers at Ibrox. In addition to trying to secure the three points, tonight will represent a crucial return to the partnership between Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney, a partnership which has been little seen of late, but one which United fans are keen to see rekindled.
Tonight we'll also get to view the long unseen but never forgotten Ryan Giggs, who comes back to the starting lineup after a long spell out with a tweaked hamstring. Although the United offense and midfield are full of veterans, the defense features newboy Chris Smalling and youngster Jonny Evans, who has been benched for quite some time due to early season performance issues.
For Rangers, sadly from a purely American point of view, Maurice Edu is out tonight. The Scottish side stack the back, essentially playing five defenders in an effort to repeat the clean sheet earned at Old Trafford last the two sides met.
United look more lively from the start, Berbatov offering a header at the eight minute mark, but the ball is hit directly at the goalkeeper. Both Nani and Berbatov have shouts for penalties early on, although both are denied by a referee who sees nothing wrong with either challenge, with only Nani's bloody mouth serving as evidence of his maltreatment at the hands of the home side.
Rangers work patiently, laboring to get the ball out of their own end due to the depth at which they're defending. Kenny Miller comes closest for the home side in the game's early going, heading just wide off a set piece, which to this point in the action looks like the only way Rangers will get on the scoreboard. The Glaswegian fans don't seem to mind much, singing in full throat in support of their side throughout the half.
United begin to subtlely turn up the heat on the hosts as the game nears the 30 minute mark, Rooney with two glimpses of goal -- which may be as much as anyone has a right to expect on the evening -- that ultimately expire unfulfilled. Five minutes from half the England striker takes to the air to try a third time, attempting to head home a searching cross from Fabio on the left wing, only to be denied by the bar.
The half ends with a dull groan, the two clubs having now played a collective 135 minutes home and away without either managing to pierce the goal mouth. This situation is a testament to both the stubborn defensive efforts being put out by the men on the pitch, as well as the lack of ambition primarily from the Scots, who look please to be headed to the locker room still tied at nil.
It's Rooney once again -- give him credit for nothing less than looking the most likely to score up to this point -- just missing wide on a free kick to open the second half action, Rangers' goalkeeper scrambling and relieved as the shot narrowly misses its mark.
United's best opportunity of the game comes ten minutes into the second half, resulting from a beautiful interplay between Berbatov and Rooney, the two strikers passing the ball back and forth to free up Michael Carrick, who has ventured into the 18 yard box seemingly for the first time all night. Carrick's shot is ultimately deflected as the effort comes to naught. At the other end of the pitch Van der Sar has to bail Jonny Evans out to deny Rangers a goal scoring opportunity, as both goalies begin to work for the first time all evening and the game mercifully springs to life.
Both teams race back and forth as a frantic track meet now unexpectedly breaks out at Ibrox, which changes the character of the game and opens the pitch for the first time all evening. United look to be a small step quicker at this point, and it finally feels for the first time all evening as if a score might be in the offing.
Anderson replaces Scholes with 25 minutes left, the Brazilian making his first appearance since being laid low by the flu that swept through the Reds like smallpox through an American Indian reservation. The move looks to be a strange one, as United appear to need creativity and vision at this point in the match, two qualities Scholes possesses in abundance and Anderson would seem to lack.
Although Rooney may have returned from Oregon in full match fitness, with fifteen minutes left he displays his lack of full match sharpness in glorious high defintion, as Berbatov lofts a perfect ball into the box for Rooney to run onto, but the out of form and favor striker fluffs the ball harmlessly wide.
Chicharito and Obertan replace Berbatov and Nani with just under 15 minutes left, as Fergie shuffles the deck in a search of the game winner. Ten minutes later and the game is decided when Rangers' defender Steven Naismith loses Fabio in the box, finding him only with a high boot to the head, and the referee has no choice but to point at the spot. Rooney strikes the penalty with full force, the ball finding the back of the net and sending the goalkeeper sprawling in the wrong direction and Rooney running exultantly toward the sideline before sliding in joy on his back.
In the end it's the slimmest of victories for United, as the Red Machine continues to stumble forward in low gear. The Reds keep another clean sheet and make the last game of the group meaningful only for positioning. It's not the prettiest thing I've ever seen, but United have now taken maximum points from their three away matches in the Champions League, and it's a satisfied farlieonfootie signing off for November 26.