United must find a way to disrupt Porto
QUARTER FINALS SECOND LEG: FC Porto v Manchester Utd:THE EUROPEAN Cup has been as much of a frustration to Alex Ferguson as an inspiration.
From time to time he will volunteer that Manchester United’s record is not in proportion to the club’s aims and means. The first point of reference, if only for geographical reasons, would be Liverpool and their five successes in the tournament. This, all the same, is not a parochial matter.
United are holders but in another sense they are merely among the better-known also-rans. Should the trophy be retained, they will have a fourth triumph to put them on a par with Bayern Munich and Ajax. Milan and the record-holders Real Madrid are hazy figures in the distance.
The issue of reliability in the tournament is queasily topical for United as they face Porto in the return leg of the quarter-final after that 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.
It was the sort of result that was supposed to have been abolished. The thrust of Ferguson’s policy has been to curb the free-wheeling football and exert more control. After all, the last-minute goals that snatched glory in the final with Bayern 10 years ago were not the product of a formula that could be repeated on demand. In fits and starts the team changed its ways.
Over the seven matches of the knockout phase last year the 2-0 win in the away leg with Roma was the single occasion on which United scored more than one goal. That has been a side-effect of a strategy gradually and even reluctantly adopted.
United had absorbed the very un-British lesson that patience is everything.
Porto had not seemed much of a danger and Ferguson’s compliments beforehand could have been interpreted as pure protocol. No longer. Jesualdo Ferreira’s side passed the ball better, yet also got it to the front three without delay.
United had to blow the dust off the 4-4-2 blueprint and switch to a gung-ho stance that did take them into a 2-1 lead. Having abandoned the methodical manner, though, the side could not muster the organisation to deny Porto an equaliser they had deserved.
Now there is a quandary. The visitors had the superior technique at Old Trafford. If they have the edge in that aspect again tonight, United will have no option but to revert to some of the old combativeness that smacked of naivety in days gone by.
Last week, however, the metabolic rate of Ferguson’s side was sluggish. There are reasons for that and injuries may have prevented United from rotating the line-up as intended.
Still, the resources should be more extensive than they have looked in the past few weeks. Winners from the teenage substitute Federico Macheda against Aston Villa and Sunderland have made for a fine story but it would be better for United if victory reverted to being a simpler tale.
Elementary improvements may be at hand. While Rio Ferdinand cannot be a guarantor of a clean sheet, the centre-back’s expected return from injury will be a boon following his absence from three matches in which five goals have been conceded.
That, of course, will not suffice. Any defender will be vulnerable if men like Cristian Rodriguez and Lisandro Lopez are again allowed comfortable possession in promising areas.
The 4-2-3-1 system with which Ferguson began at Old Trafford has been United’s usual structure. It was undermined to some extent by a waning in the form of some people. Michael Carrick, for instance, was not as effective as anticipated and for a single night Fabio Capello could be confident that nobody would ask why he prefers Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry for the England team.
Aside from such lapses the attitude in the United ranks was unsatisfactory in periods, with Cristiano Ronaldo, inevitably, being the man who conveyed exasperation and moodiness most vividly.
His demotion to the bench at the Stadium of Light may have had more to do with chastising the Portuguese than resting him.
Wild risk-taking should not be anticipated tonight and Carrick may have been setting the tone with his comment that 1-0 would suffice.
Nonetheless, United dare not let Porto dictate the character of the match as they did in the first leg. They must find the approach to engage more directly with opponents who are not likely to be bashful.
Whether the 4-2-3-1 shape survives, United will have to summon up the zest and organisation to disrupt Porto. Only that touch of destructiveness can keep their hopes intact.