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Oct 21, 2008

Strachan left lauding United

Manchester United 3 - 0 Celtic

Revenge is not a dish best served two years on. But for a man as intensely competitive and unlikely to forget a setback as Sir Alex Ferguson, it is better delayed than never and better still when orchestrated with such panache. In 2006, Shunsuke Nakamura ruined the Glaswegian's homecoming and condemned Manchester United to defeat at Celtic Park. Tonight there was a relentlessness to United's excellence that doomed Gordon Strachan on his return to Old Trafford. This was a classy form of retribution and one that left the former United midfielder admitting: "That's one of the best performances I've ever come across from watching European football."

Ferguson can use the Champions League to rotate, but it was revealing that this was not one of those occasions. Having thrown a curveball by suggesting that Cristiano Ronaldo would be rested, he fielded the Portuguese for 82 minutes. With five players injured, his side would not be further weakened. Even the first two substitutes, Wes Brown and Carlos Tevez, were men with points to prove after being displaced in recent weeks. Some of his former employees have benefited from Ferguson's generosity, but Strachan is not among the favoured few.

Indeed, Strachan and Celtic is not the sort of combination to make a former Rangers forward opt to take it easy. It helped, too, that he got the kind of acquiescence from the officials that the ever argumentative Strachan rarely offered during two stints among his charges. Ferguson is rarely a man to object to questionable decisions that favour his side and both of Dimitar Berbatov's brace appeared a fraction offside. Wayne Rooney's ninth goal in seven games for club and country was less controversial and showed United were unwilling to sit on their lead. "We were always on the attack and they were always on the back foot," said Ferguson. "The speed of our play was really good."

Yet in a match inevitably billed as the battle of Britain, the decisive contribution came from one appearing ill-suited to any form of combat. Berbatov has the demeanour of one who couldn't care. An anomaly in the modern game, when pace is an increasingly important quality and incessant running figures highly among the demands upon players, the Bulgarian stands out by standing still. Not, perhaps, since Matt Le Tissier has a player's definition of movement incorporated a lack of it, relying on the ball to gravitate to him, rather than vice-versa.

And for the second time in four days, that brought a goal. He found space by occupying the a similar position against West Brom and, after 30 minutes, it was twice in as many games that Berbatov has loitered profitably in the six-yard box after corners.

He may be the target man, but the Bulgarian is scarcely a conventional one and both strikes came with his right foot. He supplied the finish with the outside of his boot after Ronaldo's set-piece had struck Gary Caldwell and been hooked back towards goal by John O'Shea. Even in the art of scoring, Berbatov rarely appears to exert himself.

Having appeared half a yard offside for his opener, Berbatov strayed a similar distance beyond the Celtic defence for his second, scored after Artur Boruc parried Ronaldo's swerving free kick into his path. "You need a decision when you come here," Strachan added. "To get two like that was a blow."

"The holy goalie," as the Celtic fans have dubbed Boruc, made an unholy mess of halting Berbatov a third time, before Rooney cleared the crossbar when a goal beckoned. He thought he had one, only to be halted by an offside flag, before he made it third time lucky with a third goal, drilled in from 20 yards. As in United's previous Champions League game, therefore, the alliance of Rooney and Berbatov contributed all three goals. This is a combination of two very different strikers, and that may make them harder to halt. There are times when the Englishman operates ahead of the Bulgarian, who is the focal point of the attack but not the furthest man forward, and occasions when Rooney roams wherever he pleases. He shows a continuing willingness to occupy the left-back berth for at least one minute of every match.

"He's got a natural energy and expends it all over the pitch," said Ferguson. "He loves defending, he likes to be involved in the game all the time."

He was the star turn, but everyone impressed Strachan. He explained: "We've played some terrific sides over the last couple of years but that's the best. We cannot be faulted for guts and determination. Physically we couldn't match them and that told the longer the game went on. We were taking punches, rather than punching, right until the end."

Celtic's resources are much less than United's and Strachan is too much of a pragmatist to ignore such a fact. It is a telling statistic that Berbatov was seven times as expensive as the costliest player he fielded, Scott Brown. If Celtic did not arrive with the most ambitious gameplan, it is understandable. Nevertheless, they came closer before the opening goal. Edwin van der Sar tipped an Aiden McGeady shot wide and pushed a fierce effort from Caldwell over the bar.

Thereafter, van der Sar was a spectator. His team-mates made it quite a spectacle.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney - In the richest vein of form of his career. Strachan was hugely impressed. "He is unplayable. We tried everything. When you see players like that, you've got to hold your hands up and say 'I've just seen a world-class player'."

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: This was all the more impressive given the absentees included Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Paul Scholes, Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick. The stalemate against Villarreal means United may need to win in Spain to top the group but their form means that is certainly possible.

CELTIC VERDICT: They are playing for third place in the group and the trip to Denmark to face Aalborg may prove more important that the return match with United.

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