Report by Steve Bartram
A rare goal from Anderson gave United a point in a captivating encounter with Valencia, ensuring the Reds’ passage to the knockout stages of the Champions League as winners of Group C.
The Spaniards had forged ahead before the interval when Pablo Hernandez punished a slack piece of play from United – firing home the first goal the Reds have conceded in this season’s competition – before Anderson tucked away the rebound from Ji-sung Park’s parried shot just after the hour mark.
Already assured of qualification to the second round, both sides scuffled for victory in an end-to-end tussle. Sir Alex Ferguson named a side bearing only two changes from that which obliterated Blackburn Rovers in Old Trafford’s last action. Most surprising was the inclusion of Ben Amos, who made his Champions League debut in goal, while Fabio replaced the injured Patrice Evra at left-back.
Whereas latter group stage games can be lacklustre affairs, both sides signalled an early intention to attack. Nani dragged a shot just past Vicente Guaita’s left-hand post inside four minutes, while Ricardo Costa headed wide when well placed.
Anderson played a neat one-two with Rooney and fired tamely at Guaita, before Alejandro Dominguez twice came close in quick succession; firstly drawing a smart save from Amos with a cheeky effort from distance, then cracking a low drive against the outside of the youngster’s post.
The clearest opening of the game’s early stages fell to United, however, when Anderson’s delightfully weighted through-ball released Berbatov, who opted to try and round Guaita, only for the youngster to deny the Bulgarian by thrusting out an arm and halting his progress.
United 1 Valencia 1
That chance marked a sustained spell of United pressure. Both Nani and Anderson came close from promising positions within the visitors’ area, then a superb left-wing cross surge and cross from Rooney gave Park an unmarked volley which Guaita parried to safety with his legs.
Within the same passage of play, Valencia took the lead. Carrick’s slack pass was pounced upon by the alert Dominguez, who advanced and slipped a pass to Fernandes and the midfielder struck a powerful low shot between Amos’ legs.
The chance to make history had gone. More importantly, Valencia had suddenly seized control of Group C, fronting United with the possibility of facing more imposing Spanish opposition – Barcelona and Real Madrid – in the second round.
The riposte was brisk and almost emphatic. Rooney picked up possession on the left wing, cut infield and curled a stunning effort from 25 yards which thudded against the underside of the crossbar, and Nani’s volleyed rebound skidded agonisingly wide of the far post.
That purpose carried over through half-time, and Berbatov could twice have levelled from Rooney crosses within two minutes of the restart. First the Bulgarian’s flicked header was parried away by Guaita, then his second header dropped just past the youngster’s far post.
Berbatov seemed to have levelled in the 56th minute when he clinically volleyed home a Nemanja Vidic flick, but he was correctly ruled offside. Although Aritz Aduriz tested Amos with a near-post volley soon afterwards, United’s dominance was almost total, and Guaita was increasingly under siege.
Rooney spun and fired just wide after good approach play from Park, then moments later fired in a stinging half-volley from distance which Guaita opted to punch to safety. The youngster’s preference for parrying had proven effective, but soon afterwards it played a major role in United’s equaliser.
Rafael burst through a cluster of players and spread the play to Park. Cutting in from the left and using Rooney’s run as a decoy, the Korean unleashed a superb shot which was destined for the near top corner. Guaita did well to keep the shot out, but his parry landed only at the feet of Anderson, who tucked away the rebound and embarked on a rare goal celebration – indeed, his first at Old Trafford.
The early stages of the second half had seen United as the only attacking agitators. Suddenly, Valencia were stung into life. Pablo Hernandez somehow missed a gilt-edged chance from six yards after the visitors had survived a legitimate shout for offside, before Guaita frustrated Berbatov twice in under a minute with a pair of fine saves to keep out the Bulgarian’s header and shot.
As the game swung from end to end, Valencia’s small band of supporters claimed a penalty when Fabio and substitute Isco collided inside the area, before Aduriz shot straight at Amos following Nani’s loose pass to substitute Chris Smalling.
Perhaps inevitably for a game conducted at such breathless pace throughout, the final 15 minutes ran out of steam. Both teams can now draw breath before looking forward to next Friday’s draw for the second round of this season’s Champions League.
United: Amos; Rafael, Ferdinand (Smalling 50), Vidic, Fabio; Nani (Giggs 81), Anderson (Fletcher 90), Carrick, Park; Berbatov, Rooney.
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Hernandez, Obertan, Macheda.
Valencia: Guaita; Miguel, R Costa, Dealbert, Mathieu; Hernandez (Feghouli 82), Banega, Albelda, Alba (Mata 68); Dominguez (Isco 54); Aduriz.
Subs not used: Sanchez, Maduro, Soldado, T Costa.