In their second leg encounter against Bayern Munich this week there were two sides to Manchester United’s performance which were indicative of a season of ups and downs. At times the United play was what we come to expect from a team having made an appearance in the final of the competition for the last two seasons and at other times what was witnessed was way below the required standard.
The way United took the game to Bayern in the early stages was exactly what was required and has been the hallmark for many similar Champions League wins. The tireless workrate when not in possession of the ball was fantastic with both United full-back’s putting in combatative performances when faced with Bayern’s lethal weapons on the wings. A first half performance such as the one given by Patrice Evra is what we come to expect from the Frenchman who surely must be at the top of the tree in terms of world football for a player in his position but it was on the other side where a first half performance of real note was given. Rafael da Silva was quick in the challenge and was able to put Franck Ribery under huge pressure whenever the Frenchman was in possession limiting any kind of influence Ribery was able to have on the encounter. In stark contrast to Bayern both of the United wide man were sublime during the first half with Antonio Valencia in particular showing the ability to make the step up to a top class Champions League performer. The decision by Sir Alex Ferguson to freshen up his midfield with some younger legs than those seen against Chelsea played instant dividends due to Hans-Jorg Butt’s lack of knowledge concerning the threat that Darron Gibson poses from outside the area. United were certainly buoyed by the return of a clearly unfit Wayne Rooney which again looked to be a masterstroke by Ferguson.
Then it was to all fall apart as United’s season looks to be doing following their performances over a three game and nine day season defining period. United may have been unlucky to go down to ten men following Rafael’s sending off but it was the way that they performed following this which was most disappointing. Rafael himself can have no complaints despite Ribery leaning into him for much of the foul and the Frenchman’s behaviour following the award of the free-kick. The fact remains that the pull an opponent back in that manner is a booking. It was a needless foul to give away as although Ribery had gotten away from the young Brazilian he was still a way from the United goal. This performance from Rafael was illustrative of his second season in the first team, a fantastic early performance overshadowed by a mistake which was to prove costly. It was a similar story for the 19-year-old in the last round against Milan with his naivety costing him his place in the side.
Bayern were always going to come at United in the second period following their goal and the sending off and United did defend well at times but they offered little threat going forward. Once Rooney was withdrawn United posed no threat as when the likes of Valencia received the ball he was so isolated he was left with no options. Valencia certainly had the beating of his marker in the first period but he was constantly fed the ball then immediately given options for a cross or a pass. In the second period this stopped. United also ended up playing with Nani in the central striking role meaning that there was no option for holding the ball up front enabling Bayern to hit in wave after wave of attack. The fact that Ferguson waited so long to introduce Dimitar Berbatov shows a lack of trust on the manager’s part and does not look good for the Bulgarian’s United career. The United midfield which totally dominated the German’s in the first half seemed totally out of sorts following the sending off and struggled to get a firm grip on the German central midfield pairing. Being able to put your opposition under pressure and break forward when you have the ball is only half of the battle in the Champions League. United desperately needed someone to hold onto the ball and take the sting out of the encounter, unfortunately no one stepped up and was counted for this role.
In the last ten minutes when United needed a goal they had no idea how to even get hold of the ball posing little to no threat at all. This is not what the fans come to expect from Manchester United – a team that is so adept at scoring late goals. Much of what we have seen this season is not what we come to expect from United having already lost seven games in the Premier League and now taking an early exit from the Champions League. Whether Sir Alex will feel that there are the resources out there to improve his team and whether the clubs owners will feel that they can part with cash reserved for reducing the club’s debts remains to be seen but there clearly needs to be some work on this side in preparation for next season.