Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Baby-Faced Assassin Strikes Again

Manchester United picked itself up off the floor twice tonight in an exciting ‘Battle of Britain’ clash with Celtic, winning 3-2. Louis Saha’s first-half double and an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer open-net winner minutes into the second half proved to be enough for United to conquer the Scottish champions, and some of the demons from last season’s disastrous European campaign.

It could have been more, with the brilliant Saha coming agonizingly close to a deserved hat-trick and Hoops keeper Artur Boruc reacting superbly to keep out Wayne Rooney and a header from his own team-mate, Paul Telfer, which he pushed onto a post.

Gordon Strachan’s men fought hard, taking the lead through Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, then responded to the Frenchman’s double by evening the match themselves when Shunsuke Nakamura netted. They might have even nabbed a draw when Thomas Gravesen strode through near the end, only for Edwin van der Sar to repel the former Everton man’s effort and seal victory.

Sir Alex Ferguson had expressed the hope that his side would be able to rise above the intensity of an Anglo-Scottish feud, knowing that if it was labeled a 'British derby' match, it would only motivate the Scots even more. As he walked out of the tunnel before the match, even he must have been stuck by the amount of noise being produced by the fans of the two side. A packed Old Trafford were in for a treat.

Celtic raced around as if their lives depended on it, their enthusiasm masking what appeared to be an obvious gulf in class. The visitors had succeeded in limiting United to a couple of Saha half chances when they went in front in true British route-one fashion.

In the 21st minute, Rio Ferdinand appeared to be in total control, but he waited for Boruc’s huge punt to drop out of the sky close to the edge of his own area. Ferdinand, as he does sometimes, lost sight of the ball and of the onrushing Vennegoor of Hesselink who pounced on the mishandled ball and drove a low shot into the bottom left corner of Van der Sar's goal.

It was at this moment in the game where the Red Devils decided to put their foot on the gas and responded with fervour and intent. A little desperation was also starting to appear in Fergie’s players until Boruc committed defensive suicide. Why the Polish keeper felt the need to try to take on Ryan Giggs as the Welshman vainly chased a ball which was heading over the goal line we might never know. But he did, leaving referee Lubos Michel no choice but to call a penalty on the slight nudge. Saha drilled home the penalty in the 30' to tie the match.

Seeking to repay Fergie’s faith in him, Saha produced a first class performance. When the Frenchman forced Scholes’ brilliantly disguised pass over the line in the 40', it appeared Celtic’s resistance would end. This seemed especially true three minutes earlier, when Vennegoor of Hesselink wasted a wide open chance by heading straight at Van der Sar from barely eight yards.

But there is a reason why Celtic are the best team in Scotland. When presented with a decent free kick opportunity by Wes Brown’s foul on Jiri Jarosik, Nakamura curled a superb shot over the wall and into the top right corner in the 43'. Van der Sar was rooted to the ground as he turned to see the ball hit the back of the net.

The frantic ending to the first half was only matched by the start of the second as United found themselves back in front within 90 seconds. Presented with possession by Gravesen’s poor pass, Scholes promptly found Saha in the box. Boruc was equal to the first effort but the United man got his foot to the rebound. He muffed it to a waiting Solskjaer who fired into the empty net. His 47' strike was his first European goal in almost three years.

Saha would be denied a hat-trick after shooting just wide in the 55' and then having a header well saved by Boruc in the 64'. Between them, Solskjaer and Saha had succeeded in pushing Wayne Rooney right out of the limelight. Coming back from a three-match domestic ban, Man U’s danger man was a little off all night. A little bit of rust caused him to miss the chances that fell to him, most notably in the 69' when he ran onto Rio’s inch perfect pass only to push it wide.

Gravesen wasted Celtic’s last real chance to earn a point, firing his left-footer straight at Van der Sar in the 78'. From then on it turned into a game of pin ball, Celtic trying to get the ball forward and United counter attacking at the other end. If not for a heavy touch in the 85', Nakamura would have found himself with only the United keeper to beat.

But that would be the end of it as Man U collected the three points to start their European season off brightly. Areas of concern for the English league-leaders would be the loss of Giggs to what appeared to be a hamstring injury he suffered in the collision with Boruc. The team has also sent out news that Park Ji-sung will be out for three months with ankle ligament damage. With Arsenal coming to town on Sunday after a morale boosting win in Hamburg today, this is news that Fergie doesn't want to hear. He should also be worried about a suspect central pairing in defense tonight. Rio and Brown looked a bit out of sorts today. This will only put more strain on the two as they look over their shoulders at soon-to-be fit Gabriel Heinze and Nemanja Vidic.

For Celtic, they should come away from the match with confidence that they can compete with the teams in Group F for one of the two available tickets to the knock-out stages. They proved interprising with Nakamura and have a load of a central striker in Vennegoor of Hesselink. With Benfica drawing at Copenhagen today, and the two having to travel to Glasgow for Celtic's next two UEFA Champions League games, Strachan has to feel good about his team's chances.

Man OF The Match: Louis Saha

Match Stats [UEFA]


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