Last night’s Champions League tie between Rangers and Manchester United wasn’t one that’s going to live long in the memory, thanks largely to Walter Smith‘s propensity for forming an 10-man meat barrier in front of his side’s goal whenever they venture to play outside of the comforting confines of the SPL.
Not to say that Rangers didn’t play well. They merely adopted an undoubtedly effective, though otherwise utterly sterile, manner in which to go about their drab business and the sheer mental discipline they displayed in sustaining focus on such mind-numbing anti-tactics was admirable. Hats off.
As a disillusioned neutral, the game will loom large in my recollection for one reason, and one reason alone.
Mid-way through the first-half, for the first time in living memory, United’s short-sighted, asthmatic midfield schemer Paul Scholes entered into a full-blooded sliding tackle and not only took the ball cleanly, but also managed to escape any kind of disciplinary action – after 16 long years of fruitless endeavour, ‘Scholesy’ finally got one right!
Other than the aforementioned momentous milestone, there’s not really an awful lot left to report other than an inordinate amount of defensive stifling and a peppering of anti-climatic, meandering counter-attacks.
The gelatinous stalemate was finally dissolved with the awarding of an 87th minute penalty, when Rangers’ midfielder Steven Naismith, attempting to volley a cross clear, inadvertently belted marauding United left-back Fabio‘s tousled head clean off his shoulders. Under stringent FIFA/UEFA laws, Naismith then received the obligatory yellow card that ‘attempted decapitation of an opponent’ seems to carry with it these days.
From amidst a hail of Scotch boos, United’s wayward wünderkind Wayne Rooney, making his first start for nearly two calendar months, emerged to sweep home from the spot – booking his side’s passage into the Champions League knockout stages in the process.
In truth, Rooney endured a fairly quiet night, coming close on a few, sparse occasions but never really troubling the numerous members of Rangers’ choked defensive line – bar a fine first-half header that clipped the bar on it’s way over the top.
Still, as is his predilection for the slightly over-protective accolade, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was beaming with praise for the testicular fortitude shown by his insubordinate protege:
“It took a lot of courage to take the penalty kick. It was not an easy night, he missed a couple of chances but that’s what you expect with the rustiness in his game.
Every time he scores a goal he wants to celebrate with the fans and players. We are pleased for him, although he’s got a bit to go fitness-wise.
He’s not had an easy night, he’s missed a couple of chances but that’s what we expected. He’s rusty, he needs games; that’s obvious, but it’s a start for him. We need him to keep playing 90 minutes and that will continue now.”
After the last three months of endless, inane negativity, Rooney himself is just glad to be commenting on his football again – telling a post-match reporter:
“I had to wait quite a long time to take the penalty, but I knew what I was doing and where I was going with it. It didn’t bother me too much.
There weren’t any nerves but it was a relief for me to score and hopefully now I can build on this. I felt good through the game. I felt fit and I want to go on a goalscoring run now.”
Upon scoring the penalty, a United fan vaulted the advertising hoardings to celebrate with Rooney on the pitch. Whilst many took to admonishing the security staff for their lapse, the man himself saw it as a positive gesture of solidarity:
“I wanted to celebrate with our fans so I went over to them and a fan jumped on me. It was a nice feeling to be back to that.
It was quite a frustrating night until then and we were thankful to get the win in the end. It was a job well done. [Rangers] got a lot of men behind the ball and made it difficult for us and it was hard to break them down.”
Now, call me a cynic but I’m not sure that a single, brief bout of vein-straining howls are going to be quite enough to restore Rooney to the level of esteem in which he was once held by the United faithful.
It’s just this horribly messy business of the £50-odd million he’s successfully managed to extort from the club’s debt-strewn coffers of late that leads me to think otherwise.