Saturday, December 7, 2019

United hold on but count cost of Ronaldo penalty miss

A rare failure of nerve by Cristiano Ronaldo cost Manchester United the chance of a famous victory but Sir Alex Ferguson's side still emerged as favourites to reach the Champions League final after a goalless draw with Barcelona in their semi-final first leg clash here on Wednesday.

It could have been so much better for the English champions if Ronaldo had not missed a third minute penalty but, after an enthralling contest that Barcelona undoubtedly edged on points, United will not complain too loudly about the outcome.

“I didn't change my style for the penalty,” said Ronaldo.

“But now I will score in Manchester.

“Barcelona played well and kept the ball a lot but we defended well. Nevertheless 0-0 is a good result for us.”

Ferguson was surprised that the Portuguese star had not put it away.

“I would have backed him to be honest,” said the Scot.

“He was a bit unlucky and maybe its come too early.”

Ferguson, though, was pleased with the overall outcome.

“It was a professional performance and as I said at half-time we sealed off areas where Barcelona normally do well.

“There was a lot of play on the edge of our box but we defended well.

“We should have done better with our possession and we gave the ball away too easily. The result gives us a good chance.”

The visitors' display never threatened to scale the heights they have touched at times this season and have resulted in Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and co. being hailed as the richest collection of talents ever assembled by the club by both their manager and Sir Bobby Charlton.

But a gritty defensive display and the relatively meagre ration of real chances they accorded Barcelona will have given Ferguson justifiable cause for optimism about the outcome of next Tuesday's second leg.

Deprived by a gastric bug of the services of centreback Nemanja Vidic, Ferguson must have thought his luck had turned for the better when Ronaldo headed Rooney's corner against the arm of Gabriel Milito just 90 seconds into the match.

The defender, drafted in to replace Barca's suspended captain Carles Puyol, could do little to get out of the way but the fact that his arm was raised ensured Swiss referee Massimo Busacca had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.

Against the background of a cacophony of Catalan catcalls, Ronaldo's customary pre-penalty gunslinger stance appeared as confident as ever.

The strike that followed was anything but however and his side-footed slice hit the post and went wide.

Barcelona immediately set about making the most of their let-off and United lived dangerously for a while as Lionel Messi repeatedly jinked and swerved his way into dangerous positions.

The sight of Rooney desperately hoofing the ball to safety from deep inside his own box was symptomatic of the problems United were encountering in coping with the intricate passing patterns woven by their hosts .

But with the exception of two free-kicks within a yard of the 18-yard line – both of which were blasted into the United wall – and a deeper delivery from Xavi that Rafael Marquez narrowly failed to connect with, the attractive approach work was not yielding clear cut chances.

United were doing no better in that department but might easily have been awarded a second penalty just before the half-hour when Ronaldo intercepted Andres Iniesta's slack pass across his own 18-yard line.

As he attempted to go past Marquez, the Portuguese winger collided with the outstretched arm of the defender and tumbled to the turf but on this occasion the Swiss referee declined to oblige United.

“I don't understand why the referee didn't give a penalty,” said Ronaldo.

Ferguson, though, wasn't surprised.

“You're lucky to get one penalty at the Nou Camp, so getting two…”

The bluntness of Barcelona's cutting edge in part reflected the fact that Rio Ferdinand was winning his personal battle with Samuel Eto'o and it was not until five minutes into the second half that the Cameroon striker finally escaped his shadow.

But after skipping past the England defender on the right of the box, his attempt to pick out Messi was thwarted by Michael Carrick's important intervention.

Two minutes later, Iniesta's delightful little flick helped a pass from Messi into the path of Eto'o but, from a tight angle, his shot ended in the side netting.

Almost immediately Carrick went equally close after collecting a corner at the backpost and sidestepping Marquez, who will miss next week's second leg after a first-half booking he incurred for a trip on Ronaldo.

Van der Sar had his first real save to make just before an hour had elapsed, falling to his right to smother Xavi's low drive.

The Dutch goalkeeper followed that up with two competent saves from substitute Thierry Henry in the closing minutes but neither strike from the former Arsenal captain was sufficiently well-directed to truly threaten to break the deadlock.

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