Wayne Rooney congratulates Cristiano Ronaldo after the Portugal striker headed Manchester United into a two-goal lead against Inter Milan
photo by Bradley Ormesher/The Times
Oliver Kay, Football Correspondent
Call it the end of an aura. In José Mourinho’s dreams, this was going to be the evening when he made an irresistible audition to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s eventual successor, but instead the self-anointed Special One exited the Old Trafford stage to the sound of catcalls, left to ponder an uncertain future as well as the distance that Manchester United have advanced in the 18 months since he departed English football.Ferguson’s team were nowhere near as convincing last night as in the goalless first leg at the San Siro 15 days earlier, but, with goals in the fourth minute of each half, from Nemanja Vidic and Cristiano Ronaldo, they were too strong for an Inter Milan team who, for all that they threatened in the opening period, lacked the class, composure and, perhaps above all, the conviction to derail the United bandwagon.
That challenge will be passed on by Mourinho, the Inter coach, to his old adversary Rafael Benítez, who will take his Liverpool team to Old Trafford in the Barclays Premier League on Saturday in the hope of thwarting United’s pursuit of glory on all fronts.
It looks like a tall order — if not because of the quality of United’s play, which was patchy last night, then because of the winning mentality that Ferguson has fostered over the past season or two. It meant that, even in their more anxious moments, United rarely looked in serious danger of having their defence of the Champions League ended prematurely by Inter. Ryan Giggs was a rare exception to a malaise that gripped United at certain stages last night, but, with Vidic and Ronaldo claiming the goals, both of them unmarked to score with headers, it was not the nervous occasion that some may have expected.
Inter certainly had their moments, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic showing the odd glimpse of the capricious talent that led his coach to propose him as the World Player of the Year, but their lack of composure in front of goal was punished in a manner that has become familiar in the year and a half since Mourinho took his leave from Chelsea.
It says everything about the cult of the manager in modern football that so many pairs of eyes, never mind camera lenses, were trained on the dugouts as the players went through the pre-match rigmarole.
The return of Mourinho to the Old Trafford touchline, where he first became ingrained in the English consciousness, had assumed the status of serious box office, but within four minutes the smug look of contentment had been replaced by a scowl, his anguish clear for all to see as Vidic was left unmarked to score with a header from Giggs’s corner.
Looking every inch the ageing thoroughbred, Giggs was in majestic form, as he has been on just about every one of his outings since the turn of the year. The 35-year-old was at the heart of everything that United produced in the opening period, still quick of feet and even quicker of mind, but too many of his team-mates seemed strangely inhibited, Michael Carrick being among those who lost their rhythm as Inter, led by the unpredictable Ibrahimovic, tried to engineer a way back into the game.
It was a first half of two halves, United dominant for the first quarter and Inter by far the more dangerous team in the second. Memories of Liverpool’s 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid 24 hours earlier — or, to put things in a more local context, United’s 7-1 trouncing of Roma two seasons ago — were rekindled by Vidic’s early goal, but Ferguson’s team gradually lost their way over the course of the opening period. As the half-time whistle blew, with United having suffered an alarming loss of their initial intensity, Mourinho shook his fist as if to tell his players that they would win the tie if they continued to play like this.
No doubt the thought occurred to Mourinho in the dressing-room that Vidic should not even have been on the field. Vidic missed the first leg through suspension, but Mourinho made clear his feeling that the Serbia defender should also have been banned for the second leg after a red card in the Club World Cup final against Liga de Quito.
It is a moot point; when Giggs floated in a corner in the fourth minute, Inter’s marking was so appalling that the goal was there for the taking. Patrick Vieira, the former Arsenal midfield player, simply lost track of Vidic, whose header sailed past Júlio César.
At that point, a rout looked in prospect, particularly as Giggs teed up Ronaldo for a chance, only for the Portugal forward to send the ball high into the Scoreboard End. That seemed to be the cue for the Inter resurgence, with Ibrahimovic eager to showcase his talent. Twice the Sweden forward teed up Dejan Stankovic, first for a 30-yard shot that Van der Sar pushed wide, then, with a disguised cross, for a chance that the Serbia midfield player really should have converted.
Between times, Ibrahimovic had the best opportunity of the lot, escaping the attentions of Rio Ferdinand but somehow heading the ball down and against the crossbar from Maicon’s whipped free kick.
Within four minutes of the restart, that profligacy was punished. Ronaldo had barely been involved to that point, but when Giggs carried the ball from right to left and Paul Scholes sent the ball farther wide, the World Player of the Year, timing his run to perfection, arrived in the penalty area to send a towering header past Júlio César from Wayne Rooney’s cross.
Still Inter threatened sporadically, hitting the woodwork for a second time when Adriano, just on as a substitute, struck a volley against a post from Esteban Cambiasso’s cross.
It elicited a taunt from the Stretford End — “You’re not special any more.” Mourinho would no doubt take issue with that and made a point of applauding the United supporters at the final whistle.
Flattery, though, will get him nowhere; self-preservation should be his priority on his return to Milan.
Manchester United (4-4-2): E van der Sar — J O’Shea, R Ferdinand, N Vidic, P Evra — C Ronaldo, M Carrick, P Scholes (sub: Anderson, 70min), R Giggs — D Berbatov, W Rooney (sub: Park Ji Sung, 84). Substitutes not used: B Foster, J Evans, D Fletcher, D Gibson, C Tévez. Booked: Rooney.
Inter Milan (4-3-2-1): Júlio César — Maicon, I Córdoba, W Samuel, D Santon — P Vieira (sub: S Muntari, 46), E Cambiasso, J Zanetti — D Stankovic (sub: Adriano, 58), M Balotelli (sub: L Figo, 70) — Z Ibrahimovic. Substitutes not used: F Toldo, N Rivas, Maxwell, J Cruz. Booked: Samuel, Muntari.
Referee: W Stark (Germany).
Draws for the quarter-finals and semi-finals will take place in Nyon, Switzerland, on March 20. There are no seeds or requirement to keep teams from the same country apart. The draws will be shown live on Sky Sports News and British Eurosport from 11am.
I watched this game first half. wasn’t quite as nice unlike last week. the game was better when they met in san siro. the second half i fell asleep. but manchester united won this game. that’s most important. and Giggs was awesome.. well written article at Times.