Stalemate for old foes

Published : Mar 07, 2009 00:00 IST

Manchester United will probably have been satisfied with the draw as it is unlikely that Jose Mourinho's side, Inter Milan, can triumph in the return leg at Old Trafford. By Richard Williams.

The final whistle sounded a split-second after Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick thumped off the chest of Julio Cesar, a reflection of a match that Manchester United did enough in to have won by a distance but will probably have been satisfied to draw. For all Jose Mourinho's remarkable record against Sir Alex Ferguson, it is hard to imagine his team getting the better of their opponents in the return leg at Old Trafford.

The noise rolled like thunder around one of Europe's great theatres of football, the epic soundtrack to a drama with one principal sub-plot involving a pair of contrasting ? but superbly matched protagonists: two remarkable football managers engaged in the latest episode of a battle that began five years ago, when Mourinho's modest, unfancied Porto removed Ferguson's glittering - and, as we were reminded, expensively assembled - squad from the Champions League.

Mourinho was prowling the technical area within the first couple of minutes, stretching out an imperious arm like a star tenor on the stage at La Scala to indicate where he expected Maicon to deliver the ball for Javier Zanetti, but he was soon being forced to watch in frustration as United poured forward, forcing Inter's midfield men into a series of fouls as Ronaldo set about proving his right to the status of the world's leading player while trying to demolish his unwanted reputation for being unable to express his talent on the nights when the spotlight is on full beam.

Ferguson was able to sit back, no doubt delighted by the confidence with which his players attacked the match in response to encouragement from the 6,000 travelling fans grouped in the end normally occupied by the supporters of Milan's own Red Devils. A series of incisive attacks should have brought them an early lead. First, Cesar brought a wonderful save off a strong, angled header from Ronaldo with the help of a Ryan Giggs' cross and then when Giggs himself ghosted past Nelson Rivas before failing to beat the sprawling goalkeeper from close range.

The Brazilian was again in decisive action to save Ronaldo's 25-yard free-kick, the third of several increasingly dangerous dead-ball attempts from the Portuguese winger.

Inter may be romping away with a fourth consecutive Serie A title, but even under Mourinho's care they appear to remain what they have been for many years: a collection of variously talented players lacking any sort of authentic cohesion. Great players such as Bergkamp, Recoba and Ronaldo have come and gone, leaving barely a trace. Only when their rivals were brought low by scandal were they able to assert a rather hollow supremacy, and against United they again flickered and sputtered like a malfunctioning set of illuminations.

Only one Italian occupied a place in their starting line-up: Davide Santon, the 18-year-old left-back, joined in the second-half by another teenager, Mario Balotelli. Otherwise it was the usual collection of South Americans and players with an east European background. Up front Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano played like strangers, with Dejan Stankovic vainly trying to effect an introduction between the Bosnian-Croatian Swede and the Brazilian. Only Cristian Chivu, in defence, and Zanetti, in midfield, exuded the quality of champions. Mourinho's Chelsea could look plain but never this disjointed.

By contrast United's attacking combinations had a slickness born of the familiarity and mutual trust existing between Giggs, Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and the impressive Park Ji-sung, who lacks the polish of the others but provides effort, availability and common sense.

A bizarre note was added to the contest when Francesco Toldo, the former Italy goalkeeper who is now Cesar's understudy, was booked for rising from the bench and protesting too vehemently when a foul was given against Maicon close to the touchline.

Luis Figo, now presumably collecting his remuneration in the form of a pension, leapt up to defend his fellow substitute, both of them in elegant brown puffa jackets that might have come from one of the shops on the Via Montenapoleone, but nothing could prevent Toldo from becoming almost certainly the first goalkeeper in the history of the European Cup to be booked without having taken part in the match.

Inter packed more meaningful pressure into the first five minutes of the second period than they had managed in the first 45 and there was always a chance that an individual moment of inspiration would strike the necessary blow. As they attempted to lay siege to their visitors, however, the soundness of Ferguson's strategic vision - not always the Scot's most reliable quality on big nights such as the one against Inter - became apparent. Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick were posted as a double-lock in front of the back four, a safeguard whose value became evident as Inter increased the pressure, although the Italian side succeeded in disrupting their own increasingly fluent rhythm when Chivu and Maicon committed fouls that brought yellow cards.

After a sparkling first 20 minutes, Ronaldo virtually disappeared as an influence for a long period, despite being up against a teenager making his debut in the competition. He woke up, however, when denied a claim for a foul. Sliding effortlessly past the left-flank of Inter's defence, he slipped in a low cross that just evaded the foot of the onrushing Park as an evening dominated by United's composure approached its feverish but ultimately unresolved climax.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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