United still language of Europe

 

MANCHESTER UNITED'S team may be even more heavily littered with foreign faces but they still have to get their tongues around the modern language of European football.

The narrowness of last night's 1-0 defeat in the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin, courtesy of a first half goal from Alen Boksic, was more a reflection on Juventus's finishing than a consequence of United's efficiency. Had the European Cup holders taken half their chances the evening, for the English champions, would have borne uncomfortable echoes of Barcelona and Gothenburg.

Not that losing to Juventus represents in itself a calamitous start to Manchester United's latest attempt to succeed in the Champions League. Ten points, nine at a pinch, should see a team through to the quarter finals, and United have three games at Old Trafford to come.

Even so, last night's performance by Alex Ferguson's side was far from convincing. As expected, Ferguson trimmed his wings and tried to crowd Juventus for space. A similar policy had worked against Liverpool in the FA Cup final, but last night it simply robbed United of attacking thrust.

Eric Cantona spent much of the time last night with his back to goal gazing down the pitch at what Juventus were doing to Ferguson's tactical plan. This was not the Frenchman's ideal role last night any more than it was against Galatasaray in Istanbul the first time. Paolo Montero found him little trouble.

Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky were disappointing, Poborsky especially so. The little Czech wasted several centres and missed the only really clear chance United had to bring the scores level, making a good late run to the far post to meet Gary Neville's deep cross from the right but failing to make proper contact with the ball.

The plan was to tuck David Beckham and Ryan Giggs in alongside Nicky Butt, who was filling Roy Keane's anchor role in midfield, and hope that this would deny Juventus their usual attacking channels. The trouble with the cat and mouse game at this level is that if a team is not careful it will become typecast as the rodent.

Certainly Juventus should have got more cream than they did as their French pair, Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane, dominated the midfield while Gianluca Pessotto's overlapping runs frequently outflanked United on the left. Essentially, however, the Juventus performance revolved around Boksic, whom United never managed to track down.

From the outset the ease with which Boksic turned United's defenders was a worrying omen for the English champions. Just before the quarter hour Antonio Conte seemed likely to score as he met the Croatian's cross at the far post. But he stabbed his shot into the ground and the ball flew over the bar.

Midway through the first half Boksic popped up on the right wing, this time to produce a centre which might have set up Vieri for a goal had the ball not bounced awkwardly as he met it. Four minutes later he put a free header, supplied by Alessandto Del Piero's cross, over the bar.

On the half hour Peter Schmeichel could only parry a 25 yard shot from Pessotto and Conte pounced on the rebound to find the net, only to find a flag already up. United's relief, however, was short lived.

Three minutes later they forced their first corner, a big mistake. From it Juventus swept away on the counter attack; Gary Pallister was stranded upfield, Zidane's through pass caught United thinly covered at the back and the rest was down to Boksic. After evading Butt, the Croatian calmly chipped the ball past the advancing Schmeichel.

In the second half Giggs gave way to Brian McClair because Ferguson wanted "an older head" on the field. But the change made little difference to the overall trend which to the last found Juventus piercing Manchester United's cover with depressing ease.

Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Cruyff and Poborsky for the final 15 minutes. For Manchester United it was a subdued beginning to a long and difficult journey. And they have yet to show that they know the way.

"If you give the ball away at this level," said Ferguson afterwards, "you cut your throat." Even if United make the knockout stage this time it will surely be a close shave.