Fergie's gamble backfires in stalemate
It is becoming an unfortunate habit. For the second time in four days, Manchester United were held to a potentially costly draw. For the second time in four days, Sir Alex Ferguson's selection was questionable.
Whereas the 3-3 at Everton was an early candidate for game of the season, this was the antithesis. Utterly devoid of incident, it was nonetheless a non-event that had significance. A failure to win perhaps the most winnable game in the group stage can have repercussions; so, too, can an inability to top the pool.
This was a damaging brand of dullness. It was less the Battle of Britain than a cross-border treaty; a non-aggression pact from Rangers and an agreement to hold their artillery in reserve from Manchester United. For Ferguson, it should be a reminder that even his radar can go awry.
Omitting Wayne Rooney at Goodison Park was a one-off. This time there were mass absentees. A hugely weakened team, featuring ten changes, six men making their first start of the season and only three - Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher - who are likely to line up against Liverpool on Sunday could be attributed to his boyhood allegiance to Rangers and his long friendship with Walter Smith. There can be occasional glimpses of sentiment amid his habitual ruthlessness. Either that or it was a damning assessment of the Scottish champions, one which gravely underestimated their organisation and resilience.
"Seven or eight of them played against Chelsea in the Charity Shield," said Ferguson. "I wanted to find out about one or two players." His conclusions may not be encouraging.
Smith's selection policy was more conventional and his containment policy was understandable; 0-0 draws helped secure Rangers' last appearance in Manchester in the 2008 UEFA Cup final. On his return, he opted for safety in numbers. At times it entailed stationing nine outfield players in their own penalty area and Kenny Miller, not so much the lone striker as the lonely striker, stranded in the centre circle. The formation could appear less 4-5-1 than 9-0-1.
It was another indication of their approach that the goalkeeper, Allan McGregor, was booked for time-wasting in the first half. It was unnecessary; he rarely needed to delay. United's efforts were invariably from distance and largely off target.
"We would expect to come and defend here and we did that very well," Smith said. "It's far easier to do that than it is to create opportunities. It's easier to defend and stop people than creating but there's nothing else left for us. In the Champions League now, we have to do that. Scottish teams are not in the situation we were in however many years ago when we could compete to sign top players from all over the British Isles."
It is a sad if correct appraisal. His counterpart's problems may have been of his own making. Ferguson is a serial risk-taker whose gambles are often justified but whose faith in his younger and squad players can appear misplaced; it did against Besiktas and Leeds last season. This was a third occasion when they failed to score at home.
"A half-chance from Darron Gibson and that was about it," was Ferguson's summing-up of his side's efforts. "It was a really difficult night for us. The Rangers system was very difficult to break down. It's up to us to do something about it and we didn't do that tonight."
Minus the craft and class of Paul Scholes, there was a workmanlike look to the midfield; Gibson can compensate for a lack of creativity with enthusiastic long-range shooting - a thunderous volley was a better effort than most and a fierce shot flicked the roof of the net - but the Irishman remains a frustratingly incomplete player. Ji-Sung Park, as he can do, disappeared into anonymity as did first Javier Hernandez and then Michael Owen in attack. Dimitar Berbatov, in the finest form of his United career, was not even a replacement. "His ability to create in tight situations would have made a difference," admitted his manager.
Further back, his side ended with a back four of a quartet of central defenders, all unlikely to offer the attacking impetus the rested Patrice Evra can provide. "We never created any chances," admitted Ferguson.
The damage stretched beyond the loss of two points. Antonio Valencia suffered a dislocated and fractured left ankle in a challenge with the blameless, and visibly distraught, Kirk Broadfoot. "It's similar to the injury Alan Smith got," added Ferguson; sadly his career has never fully recovered. It was the sort of injury that can put results into perspective. But in the bigger picture, this was a poor one for United nonetheless.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Kirk Broadfoot - The entire defence excelled but Broadfoot, besides a dogged display at left back, also broke forward to give Miller some of the support he received. When Chris Smalling tapped his heels in the box, he could have won a penalty.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Unusually, they were utterly uninspired. It is rare to see United so short of ideas and they seemed reliant on Gibson's shooting to make something happen. Berbatov and Nani should surely have been on the bench, if only to provide different options.
RANGERS VERDICT: After a shocking season in the Champions League last year, this was a marked improvement. Plenty of teams set out to stifle at Old Trafford, but few are so disciplined and, while it helped them to face such a depleted side, they thoroughly deserved their point.