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Apr 9, 2008

Hargreaves steals the show

Manchester United 1-0 Roma

Anfield had high drama, Old Trafford a high penalty. One brought the excitement of the Champions League, the other the predictability. Manchester United cared not. Roma were seen off as, judging by Sir Alex Ferguson's team selection, he was always confident they would be. Now Barcelona beckon.

The next European night at Old Trafford will contain the most serious examination of their credentials. This, rather than testing whether Sir Alex Ferguson can emulate his triumph of 1999, amounted to a trial of United's strength in depth.

Enter Owen Hargreaves. There are times this season when the prodigal son has resembled the long-forgotten and little-liked nephew. Eventually accepted as an essential part of the England team, when he was finally brought to his father's homeland, there was a temptation to regard it as the happy conclusion to the narrative. Instead, it marked the beginning of a strangely unsatisfactory chapter.

Few at Old Trafford have experienced anti-climactic seasons, but Hargreaves certainly has. It was been especially underwhelming considering the 12-month pursuit for his signature, resulting in an eventual expenditure of approximately double United's initial offer. A succession of niggly injuries and chastening spells on the bench, rather than acceptance at Old Trafford, have followed.

While everyone has been overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo - it is his world, they just have lesser roles to perform in it - it is more relevant that Hargreaves has been outperformed by Anderson and, since the New Year, Michael Carrick.

By Ferguson's admission, he was signed with the Champions League in mind, yet he has a tendency to materialise among the substitutes on the major occasions. His appearance tonight was the product of United's outstanding result and performance of the season in the Stadio Olimpico last week.

No Ronaldo, no Wayne Rooney and no Paul Scholes brought a solitary goal for United, scored by Carlos Tevez, but they had comparatively few alarms to endure.

That was, in part, a product of the safety-first 4-5-1 formation they adopted. With Carrick occupying his preferred anchor role, Hargreaves was unusually advanced, and exploited his freedom.

Roma's goalkeeper Doni had been beaten seven times at Old Trafford last season. His belated attempts at redemption included a fine parry to turn Hargreaves' shot wide after a Ryan Giggs pass. When the compliment was returned, Hargreaves' precise cross finding the Welshman, Doni excelled again. And he clung on when the Anglo-Canadian delivered a deep ball for Anderson's drilled shot.

So when the breakthrough eventually arrived, it was appropriate that Hargreaves should play a pivotal role. A frequent presence on the right flank, he reached the byline to whip in the cross that Tevez stooped to head in.

This, it was worth remembering, was England's foremost exponent of the Makelele role, redefined as a box-to-box midfielder; spotted within six yards of the Roma goal, augmenting the attack at every opportunity, but doing so effectively.

The Roma coach Luciano Spalletti admitted that his side were spurred on by the omission of United's biggest names. 'It was a further source of motivation for my players,' he said. 'But in my opinion, someone with Sir Alex Ferguson's experience knows what he's doing. Hargreaves came in for Scholes and we know Sir Alex followed and tracked him for so long and had to wrestle him away from Bayern.'

Ferguson rationalised his choices: 'We couldn't have a better opportunity than playing a game at Old Trafford with a 2-0 lead. That gave me a confidence we could rest those players. But strangely our two best players were Tevez and Ji-Sung Park, who came in for Rooney and Ronaldo. And Hargreaves came in and was probably the man of the match. That tells me these players could play in any kind of game.'

But such selections can backfire, and Ferguson's appeared to be doing so when Wes Brown was adjudged to have tripped Mancini, Roma's resident stepover specialist, in the penalty area. Daniele de Rossi has converted from 12 yards in a World Cup final penalty shootout. At Old Trafford, however, he blazed high into the Stretford End.

Whether a calmer penalty would have resulted in a hurried summons to Messrs Rooney and Ronaldo is a moot point but, their reprieve duly granted, United's progress was calm thereafter. 'If de Rossi had scored that penalty, it would have been an entirely different match,' lamented Spalletti.

Instead Tevez scored and it permitted Ferguson to introduce his captain. It is rare to hear a right-back accorded a standing ovation, but Gary Neville was granted one when he returned for his first appearance in 13 months, albeit as an ersatz midfielder. 'He's learned today how much he is appreciated by the fans,' added Ferguson. 'He got a great reception.'

A day for comebacks was completed by Mikael Silvestre, whose previous match was in September, though he was not greeted with similar fanfare. But after the final few minutes passed with Neville's every touch cheered, the man on the PA, suitably prepared, followed the final whistle with a blast of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe's 'Barcelona'. United are looking similarly ready for the team of the same name.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Owen Hargreaves
An encouraging display, though it remains to be seen whether it has nudged him ahead of Carrick, Anderson and Scholes in Ferguson's thinking.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: The anticipation at Old Trafford rather dissipated when news of the United team leaked. With Arsenal's visit on Sunday, it was understandable, but, for all the talent at Ferguson's disposal, it is Rooney and Ronaldo who make spectators salivate.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Their ability to win without really extending themselves is remarkable, but this was not what Arsenal would have wanted. Regulars could be rested and should be refreshed come Sunday while those who played could stroll through the second half.

The one source of encouragement for Arsene Wenger should be that, though Gerard Pique acquitted himself reasonably, United's defence have less solidity whenever Nemanja Vidic is absent.

ROMA VERDICT: Rodrigo Taddei had called for Roma to give 200%, some 90% above the standard measure for any self-respecting professional. They produced a respectable performance but, after de Rossi squandered the penalty, it was never enough.

It is undeniable that the injured Francesco Totti was missed, yet it is to United's credit that such an accomplished side was brushed aside so comfortably.

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