The Dutchman scored either side of half-time to secure United’s first win away from home in the Champions League for almost a year, but the Reds were made to sweat until the end for their three points.
When the groups were drawn Sir Alex Ferguson announced his intention to take the competition seriously this season, to avoid a repeat of last year’s embarrassing debacle that saw United knocked out in the group stage, and tonight’s selection showed that his statement was made out of conviction rather than simply to please the press.
Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney started for the first time together, with Hernandez completing a powerful attacking trio, while, with Giggs,Scholes and Carrick all missing out, Fletcher, Anderson and Cleverley were deployed in midfield. David De Gea replaced Anders Lindegaard in goal, with Fergie showing no intent of stopping his rotation policy between the two goalkeepers, while the back four was unchanged from Saturday’s game against Spurs.
Sir Alex had warned his side that a sloppy start would have had them in a difficult position but United, playing in the land of Dracula and vampires, despite beginning the match in control soon turned it into a horror show.
With the encounter barely a quarter of an hour old, the home side were in front as Patrice Evra was caught yet again out position, allowing Modou Sougou acres of space on Cluj’s right flank. The Senegal forward was quick to exploit Evra’s poor sense of position before squaring the ball back towards the middle of the box, where Kapetanos calmly slotted it past David De Gea to make it 1-0 for the hosts.
Patrice Evra’s commitment to the club is unquestionable, few foreign players have embraced the United mentality as much as the former Monaco man has, but unfortunately his performances has suffered a drastic downturn in the last two-three seasons as the United captain has gone from being a cornerstone of his team’s back four to become a liability, as his defensive frailties get regularly exposed.
Evra’s lack of pace might be understandable as the years are catching up with him, but the lazy attitude and appalling sense of position he’s displayed over the last two seasons leave profound question marks on whether Fergie shouldn’t consider a long spell on the bench for the Frenchman.
United, to their credit, regrouped quickly, with Rooney, playing as the tip of a diamond-shaped midfield, forcing a good save from Cluj’s goalkeeper with 18 minutes gone. Sixty seconds later, Hernandez’s lay off found Anderson on the edge of the box but the Brazilian side-footed his effort wide of the post, as did Van Persie with 21 minutes on the clock, after having been brilliantly played through by Tom Cleverley.
Cleverley, making his first Champions League appearance, often exchanged position with Rooney as both players dropped off Cluj’s back four looking to create space for their teammates, while Fletcher and Anderson sat deeper in the middle of the park but, while tonight’s diamond midfield offered dynamism and physicality, it lacked cutting edge out wide as Cluj were happy to sit back and invite United to attack through the middle channel, rather than out wide.
The Reds were level just before the half hour mark as Rooney free-kick was met by Van Persie shoulder and looped over Felgueiras and into the back of the net as Cluj illustrated how not to keep a high-line when defending a free kick, with their attempt to play the Dutchman offside failing miserably.
The goal, as soft as it might have been, was nothing less of United deserved as they patiently continued to switch the ball from side to side, averaging Barcelona-like stats in terms of possession, which reached the 70% at one point in the first half.
The visitors, as usual brilliantly supported by the traveling – and well oiled – Red Army, were ahead straight after the break as Rooney pinpoint ball over the top of Cluj’s back four found Van Persie who, having peeled off from his marker, slotted it past the onrushing keeper with the outside of his left foot.
The goal should have put United in total control but, while the Reds kept passing the ball with relative ease, they were unable to find the final pass as the necessity of introducing a wide man grew increasingly evident.
David De Gea had his reflexes tested as he palmed Cadu’s header over the bar after 55 minutes, before United seemed to have taken the sting out of the hosts, with a measured passing game. Wootton replaced Jonny Evans and Welbeck was introduced in place of Hernandez but De Gea came to United’s rescue deep in injury time, keeping out Bastos’ diving header to ensure United now sit alone at the top of the group.
Hardly a vintage performance, but perhaps the kind of professional display United so badly lacked in Europe last season.