CFR Cluj 1 Manchester United 2: At the King Matthias statue in the main square here, a tinny version of the song about the visitors had blared out on continuous loop all yesterday. “Strong in defence, united in attack, United are the greatest football team…”
The team fulfilled that prophecy only in small parts last night, as the immediate benefits of an attacking partnership to-die-for masked the dysfunctionality of a defence which is anything but strong.
The way Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie interacted to produce the two goals that leave United needing only four points from their double header with Braga to progress to the knockout stages, suggests that the Englishman will now return to the role of the provider he once was for Cristiano Ronaldo. "Everything starts with a good pass. Not many players can give a pass like this," Van Persie said of the second goal – his seventh in eight games for United. Rooney reflected: "I don't mind the deeper role. It's a position where you get on the ball more often."
For United's winner the speed which the Dutchman displayed to get to the ball Rooney seemed to have hit slightly too far in front of him and the deftness of touch he showed to flick it in, after allowing the ball across his body, demonstrated the point Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to make about this pairing. "It doesn't matter if they have a personal combination with each other; it's their ability to finish moves off [whoever] it's from," the manager said.
The defence is another story though, and something Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé will have believed they can profit from on Tyneside this Sunday, even before the news, delivered by Ferguson late last night, that Jonny Evans was suffering from a dead leg – sustained against Tottenham on Saturday – when he limped off after 78 minutes here and is a doubt to face Newcastle. Evans looked to be carrying the injury in the pre-match warm-up but it is a sign of the state of United's defence that he was thrown in anyway.
The seeds of some "serious problems in the defensive compartment," as one Romanian journalist described them in the Cluj manager Ioan Andone's pre-match press conference on Monday – were evident right from the start, in a way painfully reminiscent of the Spurs defeat at Old Trafford. Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Rafael da Silva and Evans all looked uncomfortable – Ferdinand's poor control forcing him to concede a hasty early corner, which skimmed off the top of Darren Fletcher's head, narrowly wide. Rafael's failure to collect a ball comfortably within his ambit caused more trouble and then came the latest manifestation of what has been the sad unravelling of Evra as a top-class defender, over the course of the past two years.
Losing touch with a jet-propelled Gareth Bale is one thing but allowing the 27-year-old Senegalese Modou Sougou to escape and leave you grasping around on the left touchline is something entirely different. This was the Romanians' first meaningful attack but United were paralysed in the moment Sougou seized on a fine, 30-yard cross-field pass which Rafael Bastos sent over. He raced away and swept in a ball which the Greek striker Pantelis Kapetanos was granted far too much space to turn in with one touch. David de Gea's less-than-dominant presence didn't help the pandemonium as the low ball was whipped in. No one wanted to claim it.
Falling behind in a sixth out of nine games this season was just the outcome Ferguson had pledged wouldn't happen and Rooney was not in the mood to be charitable afterwards. "It was a silly goal to give away. We need to stop it," he said. "It bothers us having to come from behind. It is not nice." For Ferguson, the way that Evra and Evans lost their men for the goal was "a shocker. An absolute shocker".
Evra's evening was saved by Sougou's departure with a hamstring injury after 23 minutes – a very fortuitous turn of events from United's perspective. That contributed to a pitifully unambitious performance from the home side, whose 33 per cent ball possession statistic tells the story. The occasion alone seemed to represent an achievement for the team, who treasured their meeting here with Chelsea four years ago so much that the signed match ball from that goalless draw still takes pride of place in their trophy cabinet.
That United's three points were dependent on two outstanding saves from De Gea – the finest of them in second half added time when he palmed Rafael Bastos' header onto the post – tells another story. This is a stuttering, unconvincing period of football for them. The club is not "wearing the Manchester United face," as Evra likes to call it.
They equalised when Javier Hernandez was fouled on left side of the Romanians' area by Bastos, allowing Rooney to lift up a free kick in the direction of Van Persie and watch it loop off the Dutchman's shoulder over Mario Felgueiras and into the net. The second half was only four minutes old when the partnership delivered again.
Rooney then slid in a low cross from the left which almost gave Van Persie a hat-trick in the last half hour and Evra looked to have been bundled over in the area by Cadu. But with De Gea being called on for more heroics by the end, Ferguson was happy just to escape with what he'd got.
Man of the match Rooney.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee A U Mallenco (Sp).