Date: 25th February 2009 at 1:32pm
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I was pessimistic ahead of yesterday’s Champions League clash with Inter Milan at the San Siro. Our defence looked less than confident against Blackburn Rovers and the potential absence of O’Shea and Evans gave all of us a nasty headache.

The two defenders were deemed fit enough to start but fielding two half-fit defenders at the San Siro was not exactly encouraging. A repeat of Milan 2007 still seemed entirely imaginable.

But the European champions had some different ideas: they went on to show why exactly they are the holders of this competition. United, with a back four protected by Carrick and Fletcher and a Park, Giggs, Ronaldo trio interchanging behind the lone frontman Berbatov, simply took the game to the hosts, perhaps out of spite over Mourinho’s insistence that we would play defensive, a view which I had shared.

On the contrary though, Inter were forced back as United dominated the first half. Carrick – who was, once again, magnificent throughout, shielding the back four superbly – provided neat passing and vital interceptions while Fletcher harassed everyone and won plenty of tackles against Inter’s somewhat slow midfield four of Muntari, Stankovic, Zanetti and Cambiasso.

This midfield dominance was the backbone of our first-half excellence and mention must go to Ryan Giggs as well who was clearly enjoying his role in the hole, revelling in the selfless work of Dimitar Berbatov (who’s been unfairly criticised after the game) and could have scored on two occasions if he was the type of clinical finisher which sadly he never was.

Park was working tirelessly on one flank, aided by the absolutely incredibly magnificent Patrice Evra, while on the other wing Ronaldo provided a constant threat. He was taking on defenders, cutting inside, creating opportunities. Two dangerous free-kicks, a header saved by Julio César and another that went inches wide: Ronaldo had ample opportunities to give United a richly deserved lead.

But we failed to capitalise on our dominance and the question at half-time was: should Rooney be sent on? Fergie said no, he kept faith in his team while Mourinho quickly brought off Nelson Rivas who was clearly out of his depth and replaced him with Ivan Córdoba.

The game changed, in the first 10-15 minutes Inter finally managed to exert some pressure on United’s somewhat unfamiliar back four and the otherwise ineffective Adriano could have snatched a goal had he properly hit Cambiasso’s low cross.

But their threat soon fizzed out and United were comfortable once again. Ibrahimovic frequently drifted wide left, no doubt instructed by Mourinho to try and make the most of the perceived limitations of John O’Shea who was skinned once by the Swede but overall he kept him at bay. The Irishman’s aerial prowess served him well against his foe as he could deal with long balls launched forward.

United’s dominance disappeared, the game was even but it was the away side who threatened to score as our counterattacks were dangerous. Giggs came closest, beating two defenders in the box after cutting in from the right but then managed to smash the ball into Cordoba who made a desperate last-ditch block to deny what looked like a certain goal.

It was a huge let-off for Inter but they could have scored themselves after a corner found Cambiasso in front of goal. Fortunately, the ball hit him in the chest and bounced in front of the line thus Van der Sar managed to scoop it up.

Heart in the mouth stuff but United could have had the final word. First Berbatov chipped a ball brilliantly into Rooney’s (he replaced Park in the 83rd minute) way and the English striker got behind Cordoba but Julio César raced out of his goal and cleared the ball away in the very last minute. Had he delayed his run with just a moment, Rooney would have had an unmissable chance.

And then there was absolute drama material as United won a free-kick near the edge of the Inter box in the 93rd minute. Ronaldo stepped up, of course, and lifted the ball over the wall but Julio César who saw very little of it managed to keep it out with the aid of a little fortune.

Mourinho will argue that at least his team haven’t conceded at home and thus a score draw at Old Trafford would put them through. The reality is, though, that United outplayed Inter, producing an almost perfect European away display (I think the performance level was better than at Roma last season and on a par with Deportivo 2002) and comfortably snuffed out the threat of Inter’s attacking play. With Vidic returning to the side for the second leg, scoring against the red machine will become an even more difficult task. Even without an away goal, United are the favourites now.