Ronaldo fluffs penalty

If one factor explained why United are having a heady season while Barcelona are in a slump, it is the contrast between each club's back four. By Kevin McCarra.

These teams could give stalemates a good name. Barcelona, in particular, had much of their old panache and it is only their lack of a lethal touch that put Manchester United in good heart. Having seen Cristiano Ronaldo waste a penalty at the very start the visitors will savour the durability shown on a night when, in the absence of Nemanja Vidic, the line-up had to be rejigged.

Frank Rijkaard can preach the impact an away goal would have had against his side in Manchester but there has to be exasperation that the intended onslaught was stylish rather than devastating. The altered United defence had sufficient resilience even without Vidic, and Edwin van der Sar hardly needed to be spectacular, although the goalkeeper's reaction to a swerving free-kick by the substitute Thierry Henry was important.

United, with the greed common to all dominant sides, will still groan over their failure to take immediate command of the tie. Ronaldo, a lone striker here, has been an inspiration all season long but here it was Barcelona who were given a fillip with that squandered penalty in the third minute.

The Portuguese had got his head to a corner kick and the flustered Gabriel Milito handled the ball. It was most likely a surfeit of confidence that made Ronaldo attempt to lift the spot-kick into the top corner and instead miss the target entirely.

Barcelona were the sucker who had just been given an even break. That would normally be a libellous characterisation of Rijkaard's team but fans will consider it too mild a term on the basis of shabby La Liga results.

Desultory as Barcelona have been, the scale of the talent that is temporarily being misdirected was never in dispute. United, to their own horror, had inadvertently coaxed their opponents back to life.

They had done so, too, JUST when their own resilience had been undermined. Having hurried Vidic back from a knee injury for some match practice at Blackburn, Sir Alex Ferguson must have been aghast to learn of the centre-back's gastric problems that took him into hospital for a couple of hours on April 22.

The Serb was so debilitated that he could not even join the substitutes and remained at the team's hotel.

This had overtones of the away leg of last year's semifinal with Milan. The defensive absentee from the starting line-up then was Rio Ferdinand and Vidic, who did take part after being out for a month with a broken collarbone, was a feeble version of his true self. The outcome was a 3-0 defeat that chastened United severely. Parallels were not to develop at Camp Nou and that is an indication of the side's progress.

If one factor explained why United are having a heady season while Barcelona are in a slump, it is the contrast between each club's back four. Without Vidic, the difference no longer seemed as clear but United were still watertight. The main harm was to the balance of the team since players of real verve were conscious that they needed to aid this modified defence.

Ronaldo, desperate to atone for his failure, shone a light on the Barcelona flaws intermittently.

Before the interval it was, nonetheless, United who were under stress. They struggled with the restructuring that had Owen Hargreaves at right-back and Wayne Rooney in a right-midfield post. Paul Scholes could have featured against Roma at Old Trafford in the quarterfinal but his 100th appearance in the competition was delayed to coincide with this occasion.

Operating in deep defensive midfield he would not have been feeling grateful as his famously inept tackling was highlighted twice in quick succession, when he fouled Deco and then Andr�s Iniesta.

The strong Yaya Tour� imposed himself in midfield legitimately and Barcelona relished possession but, although Lionel Messi and others found it child's play to fire crosses into the area, United usually intercepted.

When, in addition, Samuel Eto'o appeared for a moment to be bursting through the centre, Ferdinand had the speed of recovery to snuff out the menace.

Such powers had to be displayed at length as Rijkaard's players got closer to finding the killer instinct that has been mislaid. With 50 minutes gone, Eto'o steamed past Ferdinand only for Michael Carrick to prevent Messi from capitalising on the cutback. Within a minute Messi and Iniesta combined to prise the opening from which Eto'o hit the side-netting.

This, all the same, is a seasoned United line-up and they collected themselves long enough to execute plans of their own. Carrick, for instance, beat Marquez before driving narrowly wide of the near post. The replacement of Messi, who is still regaining fitness after injury, could not inspire vast relief when his place went to the latest prodigy, Bojan Krkic.

For United's part, nonetheless, there must have been some satisfaction that Barcelona were kept at bay.

THE RESULTS Semifinals — First leg Barcelona 0 drew with Manchester United 0.

Liverpool 1 (Kuyt 43) drew with Chelsea 1 (Riise o.g. 90). Half-time: 1-0.