United front provided by English backbone
Published 24/04/2008 | 09:19
The check-in lady at Gate Six of Manchester Airport early yesterday morning had to call Fabio Capello's name four times before the great man rolled up, pulling his suitcase, to be ushered on to the red-eye flight before the waiting hordes. Weary or not, he will be glad he made the effort to experience the rare sight of six Englishmen starting in a Champions' League side.
Of particular interest to him was the fact that half that contingent – Owen Hargreaves, Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown – stood guard in Manchester United's defence following a reshuffle caused by the sudden unavailability of the fearsome Serbian centre-half Nemanja Vidic. At 2pm on Tuesday afternoon, Vidic had sat in front of an official Uefa media conference at United's hotel on the outskirts of town and appeared to be as right as rain while expressing his hopes for the forthcoming game. By the evening he was missing training and being taken to hospital with a stomach complaint.
Vidic had returned from injury only on Saturday at Blackburn and, in one of the less convincing performances of his previously secure partnership with Ferdinand, the two of them were at fault for conceding an early goal that almost turned the Premier League chase in Chelsea's favour. But that was a rare lapse in a double act that has been a key feature of the team's success over the past two seasons. Sir Alex Ferguson would certainly have wanted the pair of them together and might well have pencilled in Hargreaves to sit alongside another Englishman, Michael Carrick, in front of them before being forced to reach for his eraser.
Hargreaves' pedigree in this competition – he won it in his first season for Bayern Munich seven years ago – is such that it is only surprising he has not been used more this season, above all in European games. He had started only half of United's 10 Champions' League matches before last night, finding himself lower down the pecking order as holding midfielder than Carrick, who has been in admittedly impressive form.
So here he was in his old Bayern position of right-back, up against the underrated Andres Iniesta, who had moved to the left wing in Barcelona's own switch; one that represented a demoralising vote of no confidence in Thierry Henry, confined to the dug-out for 76 minutes amid reports that he will be on his way this summer, whether Frank Rijkaard stays as coach or not.
Brown had looked for a good while as if he too might be ringing the removal men come the close season, but Ferguson played the long game, dropped an occasional acidic quote into press conferences about agents unsettling players and was rewarded last week when the defender signed a new four-year contract. The opportunity provided by Gary Neville's long injury for Brown to play at right-back this season has unexpectedly helped him cement that position in the England team, without ever looking entirely convincing there.
Last night he was understandably happy to play the covering role in the centre and allow Ferdinand, a commanding captain of United and last month of the national team, to look after the unpredictable talent that is Samuel Eto'o. When he was nutmegged the first time Eto'o moved to the right and ran at him, Brown's left-footed hoof into touch midway through the first half reflected the pressure on United that Cristiano Ronaldo's aberration from the penalty spot would have spared them.
He slowly recovered, receiving a grateful pat on the head from his captain for one important block as Lionel Messi closed in on goal. Ferdinand, meanwhile, earned the first audible chant of the night from United's followers way up in the fifth tier after winning a critical race with Eto'o.
For a worrying period at the start of the second half, the whole of the white-shirted back line was stretched almost to the point of snapping. It was the diligent Carrick, Capello will have noticed, who provided reinforcement when Brown was dispossessed by Messi, and Eto'o for once slipped past Ferdinand to cross; a minute later Eto'o escaped again to slash a shot into the side-netting.
In the final quarter of an hour Hargreaves, annoyed to be booked for a late challenge on Bojan Krkic, found himself shadowing Henry. Like the rest of United's makeshift back line, he held firm, though only after allowing the disaffected former Arsenal hero to cut inside and hit one fierce shot at Edwin van der Sar. Capello's files should be updated favourably on the defenders and their minder Carrick, though hardly on Wayne Rooney. And next week the red eyes seem more likely to be caused by Catalan tears.