Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Saha strike produces white hankies for Santos...

In Portugal you know that you've had a good night when the opposition fans start waving their white hankies at their manager before the end of the game. That is what is happened at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night as United beat Benfica 0-1, courtesy of a Louis Saha wonder strike. The Frenchman had been largely anonymous until that point, when late on in the game Ronaldo found him in the channel on the right, Saha cut inside a defender an then unleashed a powerful left foot drive giving Quim no chance. It was a goal out of nothing.

Up and until that point United had offered little in the way of efforts on goal. United's best player by some distance was Ronaldo, he was beating man after man, only to eventually take on one too many and lose the ball, such is the way of things with Cristiano.

Rooney was once again jaded, giving the ball away cheaply and looking a shadow of the of the player he is. He wasn't helped one bit by his manager, who stationed the England striker wide left. Though to be fair, I doubt Rooney would have faired better anywhere on the pitch last night.

In the bigger picture, and when Rooney is back to his best, playing him out of position isn't the answer to United's problems that were every bit as apparent as they have been over the last few years. The win over Benfica was United's first away victory in the Champions League in nearly three years. In truth, going off last night there's nothing to suggest that United have learnt anything from their recent failings.

United were disjointed all throughout the first half. Fergie, we were told, deployed
a new system to snuff out the Benfica attack. Saha was on his own up front. O'Shea was supposed to be screening the back four leaving Scholes and Carrick to attack.

The plan didn't work. Carrick was getting too far forward and Scholes the more skilful and attacking player was deeper. As if that wasn't bad enough, at one stage in the opening period Benfica were out shooting United by 6-1.

The captain Gary Neville asked the bench for clarification about who was playing where. In truth, at this level that is pure comedy and the stuff of Sunday league football. It shouldn't be happening. As an attacking force apart from the odd Ronaldo raid, United were disjointed and looked like a team of strangers. It was as bad as that.

United improved marginally in the second period and ran out fairly comfortable winners once they'd scored. Benfica are not the side they were last season, they are 12 points behind Porto in the league and once the goal went in, their heads dropped a bit. That was the signal for the home fans to produce the dreaded white hankies for Fernando Santos the Benfica coach. The Portuguese club have had 5 different managers in four years, going off last night it might be 6 in the not too distant future.

Last night's victory will not mask the obvious problems that beset United. We don't have a tactical plan, we lack cohesion from front to back and Fergie doesn't know how to get the best out of Rooney in Europe.

United at least have the luxury of having relatively comfortable looking fixtures which should see us going further than last year.

As for Sir Alex Ferguson, I get the feeling that this could be his last Champions League campaign. United won't win the Champions League, but at least the reds should reach the knockout stage before we unfurl our own white flag of surrender as we have done all too often since we last won the competition back in '99.

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