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Nov 2, 2011

United do just enough

Ten days after their 6-1 surrender to City, Manchester United fans returned to Old Trafford with the ghosts of David Silva and Mario Balotelli still skipping freely around the famous turf. It would take more than wins against Aldershot and Everton to exorcise them but, with the visit of Otelul Galati, United expected to move a step closer to closure.

The mood that greeted Sir Alex Ferguson's team was subdued, but with the release of his starting XI there was at least the promise of goals. Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov were paired up front, with Nani and Antonio Valencia on the flanks, and Wayne Rooney tasked with bringing some much-needed creativity to the centre of United's midfield.

Ferguson has toyed before with the notion of Rooney at the hub of his team, and with Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher out injured, he was given the perfect excuse to repeat the experiment.

Owen's evening lasted all of 11 minutes, but by the time the hapless striker made way for Javier Hernandez, United were already a goal to the good. Phil Jones was the creator, making passage all too easily on the right before crossing for Valencia to tap home at the far post. The stubborn resistance Otelul provided in Bucharest two weeks ago was seemingly not on the menu.

The remainder of the first half was played out at a meandering pace that did little to invigorate the crowd. Rooney found space easy to come by, but a fizzing diagonal ball that asked too much of Jones was typical of his forced efforts to spark United into life. Nani's ill-advised trickery by his own corner flag sent a similar message.

Fortunately for United, Otelul were barely there at all. Ionut Neagu's drive drew a save from David de Gea, but the visitors were ill equipped to capitalise on United's lacklustre opening. Seventy-four thousand wounded Red Devils supporters were eternally grateful.

With the second half, United finally found some momentum. Berbatov came close early on and, having spent the first 45 minutes operating with trademark economy of movement, decided to take the handbrake off. It was the Bulgarian who played in Anderson, only for Sergiu Costin to clear off the line; it was Berbatov again who set up Hernandez for a shot that required a smart save from Branko Grahovac in the Galati goal.

Meanwhile, Rooney seemed far from his influential best. There were some moments to savour, his pinpoint diagonal ball set the wheels in motion for Valencia's opener, and Ferguson certainly believed his No. 10 was a useful addition to the midfield. After the match the United boss said: "I thought he was fantastic in central midfield. His awareness of people around him and choice of passing was really good. He did very well for us tonight. I think it's a short-term thing at the moment. It's difficult to say. The opposition played really well against us tonight but I'd be confident of playing him there (against bigger teams).''

However, Ferguson's assessment appeared a touch misguided. The midfield role was supposed to free Rooney, but it did the opposite. While United grasped for inspiration in the final third, their most potent attacking force was occupied playing routine ten-yard passes in the centre circle. At times he was so deep he looked like a holding midfielder - a role that flattered the bluntest of opponents in Otelul, and served no purpose to United at either end of the field.

When Rooney finally did venture forward, in the 87th minute, he was duly rewarded with United's second goal. It owed everything to a wild deflection off Christian Sarghi, and it surely validated the argument that Rooney's threat belongs in areas in which he can score and create goals. More fool anybody who sees Rooney's name on the scoresheet as validation for his deployment in midfield.

At the other end of the field, it was a much-needed quiet night for Rio Ferdinand, who was publicly outed for losing a yard of pace by his manager this week. The 33-year-old had an untroubled evening alongside Jonny Evans, and will be thankful to have got through the encounter without drawing further attention to the perceived shortcomings in his game.

Ultimately it was a comfortable, if unconvincing, win for United, whose meeting with Benfica on November 22 looks likely to decide the winners of Group C.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Antonio Valencia. The United midfielder looked full of running and hinted at the kind of form he showed last season. His goal owed everything to his tireless work ethic, and his overall performance may well be enough to secure him a starting spot against Sunderland on Saturday.

UNITED VERDICT A subdued first-half performance was improved on in the second half, with Javier Hernandez bringing some much-needed focus to United's forward play. There were positives in the displays of Fabio and Valencia, but still some worrying moments in defence. United will need to be far more dynamic and incisive to meet their manager's 25th anniversary celebrations with a win against Sunderland on Saturday.

OTELUL VERDICT The Romanians proved far less stubborn opponents at Old Trafford than they did in Bucharest two weeks' ago. They carry little threat, if any at all, going forwards and likely went home none too disappointed with a 2-0 defeat.


• Will Tidey's book, Life with Sir Alex: A Fan's Story of Ferguson's 25 Years at Manchester United, is available now.

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