Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Carousel of Progress

photo by Darren Wittkovia PhotoRee

Tonight's Champions League game against Valencia is being played solely for placement purposes, as both contestants have already advanced into the knockout phase of the contest.  United need only a draw to advance as the number one seed in Group C, while the Spaniards also have an opportunity to gain the top spot with a win, based on their superior goal differential in the five games to date.

Youth is being served on United's defense tonight, with Ben Amos in goal, bookended by twin Da Silva’s at fullback. On the offensive side of the ball, United go with more experience, starting both Rooney and Berbatov, assisted on the wing by Nani, and I'll settle for two to three goals tonight rather than the seven these guys accounted for last time out. 

United begin with a bang, Nani not far off the mark at the four minute mark, missing just to the left on a swerving shot to open the evening's action. At the other end Rafael shows off his fine defensive skills, breaking up an early Valencia foray into the box. Valencia look adventurous tonight on offense, not content to just sit back and wait for the opportunity to counter-attack.  

Anderson has an opportunity to give the home side the early lead after a quick one-two with Rooney, but he was never in danger of scoring, the play ending with the ball comfortably in Valecia 'keeper Vincente Guiata’s arms -- a sight to be repeated on many occasions this evening.   At the other end of the pitch, Valencia quickly test United goaltender Amos on each side of his goal, the rookie diving both right and left to keep the incoming traffic from crossing the goal line.

Through twenty minutes and it's the visitors with the lion's share of possession, but it's the home side looking the more likely to open the scoring. A beautiful through ball from Anderson puts Berbatov in with only Guiata to beat, but the young Spaniard proves his worth by desperately slapping the ball away as Berbatov tries in vain to round him.  Three minutes later and Berbatov is through again, this time with a slightly more difficult opportunity, but once again his decision-making is as poor as his touch is heavy, and the goal goes begging once again.

United are creating a ton of opportunities, but their decision making and crossing has let them down to this point in the match.  When Anderson drives goalward at the 25 minute mark, selfishly choosing a poor shot over an open Rooney in front of goal, the beginnings of a thought that United may rue their early profligacy begins to take hold in the back of one's mind.

When Park slams a ball at Guiata off a beautiful cross from Rooney, though, it's surely just a matter of time before the goal is breached, but when the score results it's not the home side celebrating.  Valencia finally end United's Champions League scoreless streak just past the seven and a half hour mark, as Michael Carrick gives the ball away on his own side of the midfield line, and an open Pablo Hernandez nutmegs Ben Amos to create a shock 1-nil lead for the visitors.

United attempt to claw back to even before the break, Rooney caroming a looping ball off the post from just over 20 yards, and Nani banging the rebound oh-so-agonizingly-close but just wide, as the Reds are once again denied by the thinnest of margins. It's been a lively first 45 minutes, United perplexingly creating some of their best opportunities of the Champions League to date, but still heading to the locker room on the short end of the scoreline. 

The home side pick up after the interval right where they left off, with Berbatov denied on a flick off a Rooney cross, and another Bervatov header ending just wide off the resulting corner. The crowd rises expectantly when Rooney stands over a free kick on the edge of the box, but the magic touch has not yet returned as the kick slams into a wall as hard as the Rock of Gibraltar.

Somewhat worryingly, Ferdinand comes off in favor of Smalling near the 50 minute mark, and United will have to hope that the senior English center back is ready for next week's League match against Arsenal. In the meantime, his compatriots continue to struggle to find the final move as if exhausted by their prolific output against Blackburn, and the Reds continue to trail the visitors after 55 minutes.  When Berbatov finally puts the ball in the back of the net shortly thereafter, it counts for naught as he's properly ruled offside, and the equalizer remains teasingly just outside of United's grasp.

Rooney attempts to equalize the game himself, with two strikes in quick succession near the hour mark, but the England hitman is denied on both occasions.  Valencia are harried relentlessly by United, and no sooner do they get the ball than they quickly surrender possession, and the United attack is now coming in waves. When Park's strike is denied by yet another fine Guitea punch, the only surprise on the resulting equalizer is the identity of the scorer, with Anderson claiming his first Old Trafford goal, and only his second of all-time for United. The young Brazilian must have long dreamt of this moment, and it's sweet to watch him celebrate as United deservedly pull even after a tortuous 63 minutes.

Attempting to claim the lead, Berbatov is frustrated yet again -- one has to say that it's just not the Bulgarian's night -- after a fine give and go from Rooney. Although the pair haven't managed to put the ball in the net, they're creating chance after chance tonight, and the Gaffer will be well pleased to see the understanding between his two senior strikers so quickly restored after their long layoff.

But it’s right as everything seems to be going the Reds’ way that Valencia play their way back into the match; whether it’s through the Spaniard’s own industry or United's general lethargy is hard to say. Overly casual, the Reds repeatedly give the ball away deep in their own end, and they appear to have taken their foot off the pedal well in advance of the final whistle.

Sir Alex attempts to combat the general sluggishness by injecting a buzz into the crowd with the introduction of Ryan Giggs for the 126th time in the Champions League, the Welshman replacing Nani at the 81 minute mark.

The Spaniards search in vain for a winner, and have considerably more of the ball over the final 10 minutes.  Just before stoppage time Fletcher replaces Anderson, who's put in another good shift in the engine room, and the Red see out the game to the final whistle. 

It’s a satisfied but wondering if there could have been more farlieonfootie signing off for December 9

Game Day Beer ReviewBrouwerij Roman NV Adriaen Brouwer Belgian Strong Dark Golden Ale (8.5% ABV). Pours a deep amber, copperish color, with a thick one fingered head that quickly dissipates. The smell is somewhat muted, although Belgian funk, orange and wet dog all eventually come through. Mouthfeel is decently thick and effervescent, and the first taste offers Belgian candy sweetness, followed by a touch of thin maltiness, which gradually yields to toffee and chocolate notes and a long, smooth finish. B+

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