Glorified practice match

Manchester United’s immaculate record was spoiled by a 71st-minute equaliser from Mancini, although it did not seem to matter greatly on a night when Roma’s notorious Ultras staged their trademark ambushes outside the Stadio Olimpico, writes Daniel Taylor.

In the grand scheme of things Sir Alex Ferguson will not mind too much about his team missing the chance to become only the fifth club since the Champions League’s conception to win all six games in a qualifying group. Their immaculate record was spoiled by a 71st-minute equaliser from Mancini, although it did not seem to matter greatly on a night when Roma’s notorious Ultras staged their trademark ambushes outside the Stadio Olimpico.

On the pitch Ferguson will have been encouraged by the performance of his youthful side, albeit on an evening when both sides had already qualified for the knockout stages and it felt, at times, like little more than a glorified practice match. Off the field, however, there was plenty of reason for everyone associated with United to hope that they do not encounter Roma in the later stages of the competition. Even taking into account United’s exhilarating 7-1 triumph at Old Trafford in April, the fact is that their four encounters with Roma in 2007 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. It made for a strange evening, with some attractive football tempered by the frequency with which the carabinieri provided updates about the number of supporters, including one 16-year-old, who had been hospitalised, mostly with knife wounds.

On the one hand, an inexperienced United side could congratulate themselves for holding their own against a nearly full-strength Roma side. On the other, there was an unhappy sense of deja vu from their last visit here eight months ago, a match that has clearly had long-lasting repercussions in terms of the relationship between the two sets of supporters.

Back then it was a Champions League quarter-final played in front of a shrieking, fire-cracking, near-hysterical mass of bias, whereas during this match there was a far more serene atmosphere inside the stadium. For long spells neither side seemed to be taking the game too seriously, but eventually it developed into a surprisingly entertaining contest, one that either side could have won.

For the first hour United were the better team, frequently creating chances to increase the lead that Gerard Pique, their Spanish Under-21 centre-half, had given them with an expertly taken header from Nani’s corner.

Mancini, one of four Brazilians in the Roma side, flashed a shot against the crossbar and saw a shot turned away by Tomasz Kuszczak during a late rally in the first-half. For the most part, however, Ferguson’s experimental mix of fringe players and up-and-coming reserves coped ably while Wayne Rooney, the stand-in captain, linked well with Louis Saha.

Ferguson was certainly entitled to be impressed by the likes of Pique, Danny Simpson and Jonny Evans in defence, and Nani excelled on the left and his delivery for the goal supported his manager’s theory that the young Portuguese winger can establish himself as the best crosser of the ball at the club.

Evans was close to bundling in a second after Michael Carrick had turned on another Nani corner 10 minutes after the interval and, as the home crowd began to voice their restlessness, there were several other moments when United looked lively in attack.

In the end they paid the price for their profligacy. Chris Eagles and Saha both missed good chances on the counter-attack and the pressure began to grow on United before Mancini brought Roma level with a splendidly taken goal, turning inside the substitute Wes Brown and curling a shot into the bottom corner. Mirko Vucinic, a Roma substitute, then struck a post as the home team went in search of the winner and it needed some last-ditch defending to stop the Italian side from snatching a late victory.

As it was, it had been a chastening enough evening for many of the travelling 1,400 supporters.

* * * Repeat of Rome violence

Five Manchester United supporters were stabbed at the Stadio Olimpico before their team’s 1-1 Champions League group draw with Roma. The fans were taken to hospital but none of them was in a serious condition, according to a spokeswoman for the British embassy in Rome who also said that four Britons had been arrested.

Trouble started outside Rome’s Olympic Stadium about an hour before the game as some 50 Roma and United fans threw bottles and tables at each other. Two baton charges by Italian police broke up the fighting.

The Manchester United fans knifed reportedly suffered wounds to the backside, a favoured technique used by Roma fans which causes large blood loss but no serious injury. There were also unconfirmed reports of a stabbed Roma fan.

“Seven Manchester United supporters were taken to hospital after fighting broke out on the bridge which fans cross over the river to get to the stadium,” the embassy spokeswoman said. “Five are receiving treatment for stab wounds while two others, one whom was a 16-year-old boy, were understood to be drunk.”

There was trouble when the teams met here last season and Sir Alex Ferguson, United’s manager, said: “This is something we hoped would not happen. We wanted a nice, quiet night so it is disappointing to hear there has been trouble. We just hope our fans are OK.” Roma’s coach, Luciano Spalletti, said after seeing a video of the clashes: “These people are sick.”

Terracing on either side of United’s fans was empty to prevent the missile exchanges that occurred during the team’s previous visit, after which 11 United fans were hospitalised.

Tom Kington © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007