United v Valencia: verdict
The Special One from Madrid and the special ones from Barcelona can wait for another day as United achieved their mission of avoiding the big-hitters in the December 17 last 16 draw in Switzerland. The spectre of Jose Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and a Barca side heavily laden with Spanish World Cup winners was a possible prize' had the Reds lost this one. Knowing United's traditional penchant for doing things the hard way you wouldn't have been surprised if they'd spoilt the lead-up to pre-Christmas party weekend for Reds fans by making them face a nail-biting last 16 draw. But having given everyone a customary scare, Sir Alex Ferguson's pre-match ask was fulfilled. The potential early heavyweight showdown with the two European Cup leading favourites actually combined to produce the liveliest Group C match of this Euro campaign for United. Valencia didn't have to bother about the prospect of hosting their fellow countrymen in the first knockout stages as they are protected from facing either of the La Liga giants in the next phase. Thus, they were able to play in Arctic Stretford with freedom and adventure knowing they had the comfort of a second place finish that would be potentially less taxing than most. United, on the other hand, didn't have the same luxury. The prospect of having to deal with the current Champions League trophy holding coach Mourinho in tandem with Ronaldo if drawn against Real Madrid or United's 2009 Rome tormentors Messi, Iniesta and Xavi certainly sharpened United's Euro act. United could have repelled the advance Iberian convoy with Blackburn-style ease in the first half. If there was one Red you'd like to present two gilt-edged one-on-ones on current form then it would be Dimitar Berbatov. Fresh from his five-star performance against Blackburn he could have been well on his way to another match ball in the opening 45 minutes. But the Bulgarian was back to the hair-tearing striker he was sandwiched between his two hat-trick displays against Liverpool and Rovers. Whereas he had the Midas touch in those matches, he struggled last night. Valencia's Banega couldn't have presented him with a better opportunity had he been wearing a red shirt when his sloppy pass set up Berbatov in the 17th minute. But the feet that caress a ball so superbly must have been frozen as he ran wide and was unable to get in a meaningful shot. He had the chance to redeem himself when Anderson prodded a glorious pass through four minutes later but once again that glorious touch was unusually heavy and he stumbled wide of the keeper and the breakthrough dribbled away from him. Anderson doesn't possess the same finishing ability as Berbatov and it would have been an irony had the Brazilian put away his opportunities in the 14th and 25th minutes. But once near the target the midfielder both times lost his confidence and sent one effort weakly into the hands of keeper Guaita and the other was woefully screwed wide. How Wayne Rooney must have wished he could have been on the end of one of those instead. He was still looking for his first goal from open play since last March and almost ended that drought in spectacular fashion conjuring up his own chance sending a dipping drive from 20-yards crashing against the Spaniard's crossbar. He then planted a deep cross perfectly for Ji-sung Park to volley against the keeper. If only the Reds could have taken these chances then Barca and Real might have been the ones viewing the draw in Switzerland with some trepidation. But as United squandered opportunity after opportunity, Valencia lethally took their best with clinical opportunism. Michael Carrick possibly still has haunting memories about his part in Bayern Munich's comeback at Old Trafford last April in that quarter final exit. He certainly paid the price with his place in the Premier League title run-in last spring. Last night, he dawdled in the engine room when his intended passing route was filled with white shirts and he fatally turned into danger and lost possession to Banega. The Reds never recovered from the error and Pablo Hernandez showed how to find the net with a drilled finish of quality that wrecked United's historic bid to be the first in the competition to go through the group phase without conceding a goal. United, though, didn't look like a side who'd lose faith as the missed chances piled up, instead they had the bit between their teeth and further squandered goal efforts by Rooney and Berbatov failed to break their resolve. The Stretford End could have been forgiven for holding their breath when Park's shot was parried by Valencia's third choice keeper and it was Anderson steaming in on the loose ball. But his previous questionable efforts didn't faze him as he followed up and thumped in his first ever Old Trafford goal and added to his previous only other strike against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in September last year. Dates on the February calendar in Madrid or the Catalan capital began to fade away with the 62nd-minute equaliser and the Reds saw out their task comfortably.
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