Luis Alberto wonderfully taken strike after 55 minutes was the only emotion on a night that United fans will quickly forget, particularly with Sunday’s derby at Eastlands looming large on the horizon.
The clash against Manchester City was on everybody’s minds at Old Trafford tonight and, with United having secured a place in the knockout stage as group winners, Sir Alex Ferguson seized the opportunity to re-shuffle his team, offering a rest to the likes of Evra, Ferdinand and Van Persie, while at the same time allowing Jones, Wootton, Smalling and Giggs to clock up some much needed miles.
David De Gea returned in goal after missing the last five games while Wayne Rooney was also included in the starting line-up after Ferguson revealed that the striker tends to benefit from playing as often as possible. Based on tonight’s effort, the benefits were almost impossible to see.
Despite all the usual cliches according to which players grasp their chances when selected, United did nothing to shrug off the feeling of this match being a dead rubber as they trudged along at a pace that would have been considered slowly even for a pre-season friendly.
The first chance of the game fell to Tom Cleverley after 25 minutes, but the United midfielder was let down by a heavy touch after Danny Welbeck had forced Cluj’s defenders into a mistake. Playing in his preferred role up-front Welbeck was a positive note in United’s ordinary night, producing a couple of good runs and looking much more industrious than his team-mates.
United shook off the dullness about their night just before half-time as Welbeck saw his header cleared off the line by Felgueiras, the Cluj keeper, who repelled Rooney’s delicate chip less than sixty seconds later before Chris Smalling sent his header inches wide after some good work from Hernandez.
Sunday’s preparation suffered a blow just before half-time when Tom Cleverley had to be replaced by Paul Scholes, increasing the possibilities of United missing two of their most dynamic midfielders for the showdown against City. For all their wonderful careers Paul Scholes and, particularly, Ryan Giggs seemed to have played on a season too far and Sunday’s midfield battle is shaping up to be a daunting task for United.
Apart from an increasingly cold atmosphere at Old Trafford as the thermometers plummeted even further, the second half offered very little to write home about until Luis Alberto’s superb finish that gave Cluj the lead.
After Paul Scholes had given the ball away, the Cluj midfielder unleashed a ferocious right-footed strike that swerved and dipped its way past David De Gea to leave the home side trailing and the visitors on the brink of reaching the knockout stage for the first time in their history.
In the end Cluj’s dreams were dashed by Galatasaray comeback against Braga, while United unconvincingly huffed and puffed in search of an equaliser, more out of habit than real conviction.
Giggs made way for Flecther after yet another uninspiring performance and there was even time to see Macheda replacing Powell. Yes, it was that kind of night.