Larsson bows out in style
Manchester United 1-0 LilleIn his two months at Old Trafford, Henrik Larsson has made more of an impression on the Manchester United faithful than the scoresheet. That was reflected in the standing ovation granted to the Swede when substituted. By then, however, he had scored just his third United goal to ensure progress to the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in three years.
Assuming he does not have a late change of heart, it was Larsson's last competitive appearance at Old Trafford. Due to return to Helsingborgs next week, he has not shaped United's season, but he has embellished it. An emphatic header, planted beyond Lille goalkeeper Tony Sylva from Cristiano Ronaldo's cross, was his final contribution at Old Trafford.
It served as a reminder of his goalscoring prowess that, though infrequently displayed for United, something that is attributable to a lack of service, spared his adopted side a potentially awkward final 15 minutes. He will, according to Lille manager Claude Puel, be missed: 'He's a very, very important player. He helps United build their game. He keeps hold of the ball very well.'
Sir Alex Ferguson dismissed talk that Larsson could be persuaded to extend his stay, despite the injuries that sidelined Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but concurred with Puel: 'He was a pleasure to work with. He's been a delight, but unfortunately he has to go back, but he has made an impact on the club.'
Yet for much of the match against an arguably the most undistinguished side in the knockout stages in the Champions League, Larsson's was a thankless task. As is his wont in Europe, Sir Alex Ferguson reinforced his midfield, at the expense of Wayne Rooney's joie de vivre and, ultimately, his side's creativity.
Instead, Larsson was at the head of an attacking diamond with Paul Scholes at the base, flanked by Rooney and Ronaldo. The Englishman, often subdued on the wing, struggled to influence proceedings. Fielding him out of position was the sort of tactic that brought opprobrium on Sven-Goran Eriksson but rarely, it appears, on Ferguson. Somehow, Rooney's role is not a cause celebre at Old Trafford, yet it is indisputable that he is at his most effective in the middle.
It was as though the tactics had affected United's attitude. They are rarely at their best when they surrender the initiative; caution was understandable given the comfortable position Ryan Giggs' goal in France had given them, yet it can prove counter-productive
Lille almost benefited. Aside from a John O'Shea header that hit the bar - the Irishman was inches away from scoring in back-to-back games - United had threatened little when Lille almost stole the lead. Ludovic Obraniak, the most inventive of their midfielders, curled in a free kick that Jean Makoun, evading the United defence to find room at the back post, met. His header was too close to Edwin van der Sar, but he had been utterly unmarked.
The warning was not heeded. After the interval Peter Odemwingie struck the post from an acute angle, with the United defence again a little lax at a set piece. 'Most teams now have really good delivery from set pieces and it's at an incredible level,' added Ferguson, otherwise pleased with his side's defending. 'It gets tighter the further you go and it's all down to tactics and the details of vying for games and it's an area where I think English teams are getting better.'
Another factor that may determine the trophy's destination - certainly if Lille were to be believed after the first leg - is the officials. Ferguson often calls for strong referees, the implication presumably being that weaker ones invariably favour United's opponents; his programme notes contained a mention of Luis Medina Cantalejo's task.
But the biggest decision went Lille's way and it appeared undeserved. When Ronaldo was cautioned for a supposed dive after his attempt to procure a penalty. However, defender Matthieu Chalme made contact with the Portuguese, no matter how exaggerated his fall, and not the ball. Ferguson's assessment was: 'The referee was quick to book Ronaldo. He left a foot there, the boy.'
The right-back was also among four visitors booked by the Spaniard. Lille's tackling first riled United in their meetings in 2005, and then relationship between the two clubs is marked by greater rancour now. The main reason, of course, is a controversial first leg that rather overshadowed the clash at Old Trafford.
Though there were no quickly-taken set pieces this time, Lille's interpretation of the rules regarding the defence of free kicks remains imperfect: Jean Makoun, two yards ahead of the rest of the wall, was cautioned for his attempt to stop a Ronaldo effort.
And until Larsson scored, the loudest cheer greeted the benched Giggs when he warmed up; given his intelligent movement, it is surely no coincidence that it was in front of the Lille contingent in the crowd.
But if a sense of injustice prevails in the Lille camp, they were wise enough not to mention it. Following a fortnight of graceless whingeing and futile appeals to Uefa, Puel was conciliatory afterwards. Having shaken Sir Alex Ferguson's hand, he dismissed their row as: 'part of the folklore of football. It's not that important to me so there's absolutely no problem whatsoever. They won both matches so they deserve to win.'
So perhaps it isn't 'bon debarras' - good riddance to Lille - as they exit the Champions League but, at Old Trafford, it was a fond farewell to Larsson.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Nemanja Vidic - After strangely uncertain performances against Fulham and Liverpool, it was a welcome return to form for the dominant defender.
UNITED VERDICT: They were some way below their best but progressed nonetheless. In itself, that can offer encouragement. An alternative interpretation is to ask if - as United did until the former was stretchered off - a side fielding Mikael Silvestre, Kieran Richardson, Alan Smith and O'Shea can win the Champions League. Whoever they draw on Friday, a stiffer test awaits them.
LILLE VERDICT: It was a surprise to see Larsson unattended to score because, otherwise, Lille were resolute in defence. Their problem, the speed of Kader Keita and the touch of Peter Odemwingie apart, was that they lacked the wherewithal to create clear-cut chances. If understandable, Claude Puel's unambitious tactics did not help.
ON THE TREATMENT TABLE: Mikael Silvestre went to hospital with a suspected dislocated shoulder and joins Saha, Solskjaer and Darren Fletcher on the injury list. 'It's been a bad week for us... apart from the results,' Ferguson said.
THE FRENCH AND THEIR ANTHEMS: Perhaps ignoring the banner at the Stretford End proclaiming United's presence in the People's Republic of Mancunia and unaware that 'God Save The Queen' is never heard at Old Trafford, the Lille supporters launched into a loud rendition of the Marseillaise. For their United counterparts, it merely segued nicely into their own anthem 'Ooh Aah Cantona'.