Prior to Tuesday night’s match at Old Trafford with CSKA Moscow, United had gone 22 matches unbeaten at home in the Champions League – seeing off such sides as AC Milan, Barcelona and Inter Milan in the process. Other sides, such as Aab Aalborg may have come away with a draw, but it was the team from Moscow which posed the biggest threat to United’s record. AC Milan were the last team to win on this famous ground against United on February 23, 2005 and two seasons later looked like doing the same when Kaka embarrassed a makeshift United back line only for United to grab the win late on with a last-minute Wayne Rooney strike in front of the Stretford end.
United are rarely troubled at Old Trafford in Europe but it was a different story come the visit of the Russians. The Red Devils were without first choice centre-back partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, but in Jonny Evans and Wes Brown they have two international footballers who are excellent deputies. Evans in fact had seemed to do enough for CSKA’s opener, looking to have forced Alan Dzagoev too far wide to trouble Edwin van der Sar but the 19-year-old Russian hammered in a fantastic shot from a tight angle to claim his third Champions League goal this season.
It was the second goal, however, which most exposed United’s defensive frailties. Having just pulled back into the game through Michael Owen’s first Champions League goal for four years, United were all at sea allowing the outstanding Milos Krasic to run clear, round van der Sar and finish on the spin. There seemed to be no communication between the back four as simple one-twos were proving extremely effective for the team lying in fifth place in the Russian League.
Fabio da Silva started at left back – one of five changes from the team which beat Blackburn at the weekend – and was given a torrid time all evening by Krasic, the experienced Serbian showing too much nous and trickery for the impestious youngster. Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand was forced due to the injury to Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney not having trained due to the birth of his son and Darren Fletcher returning from injury, but some changes may have showed a lack of respect for the attacking prowess of CSKA.
Sir Alex elected to change the full-backs, bringing in Gary Neville and Fabio meaning that it was a completely second-string back four. It may have been wise considering the loss of the two centre-halves to keep John O’Shea and Patrice Evra in the side for the sake of consistency. Once Evra replaced the young Brazilian, Krasic was much quieter with the Frenchman forcing him back towards his own goal. The uncertainty of the rearguard was again in evidence for the third goal as this time Federico Macheda lost his man allowing Vasili Berezutski the easiest of headers.
What was abundantly evident on Tuesday was the way opposing teams are attacking United at Old Trafford taking the game to their hosts. In both Champions League home matches, United have fallen behind to the away side playing the better of the football early on. Sunderland came thinking they could take all three points and nearly did. This is not simply due to the back four – United do not seem to carry the same attacking threat as previous seasons with the build-up all too laboured. The ability to break in seconds, punishing teams for over-committing is missing, enabling teams to come out and play. When the likes of Nani or Antonio Valencia pick up the ball they break with pace but run out of ideas when they get higher up the pitch often turning back enabling the opposition to regroup. Gabriel Obertan did provide this spark against CSKA but it is far too early to be pinning hopes on the young Frenchman.
On another day, however, it could have been so different – Macheda hit a post and had one effort slip agonisingly wide, Darren Fletcher was brought down for a certain penalty not given at 1-3 and United target Igor Akinfeev was in tremendous form between the posts, but the way CSKA brought the game to United cannot be denied. The air of invincibility is currently lacking at Old Trafford. Another sparkling comeback should not detract from the inherent problems.
United faces a huge test come Sunday as they travel to west London to take on Chelsea. The Blues are in fine goal-scoring form and another imperious performance from Didier Drogba against Atletico Madrid in midweek showed the pace and power possessed in abundance. Defensive frailties will need to be rapidly repaired and new father Rooney simply has to train all week and be in from the start. Evra and Brown have spoken out in the press about the problems at the back and they need to keep to their word in the Stamford Bridge encounter and hope that Rooney can have a similar influence as he had late on Tuesday. If United can do this, any points taken from their closest title rivals could prove massive come the end of the season. It is a big ask and one which, at the moment, is not by any means certain for this side.