Manchester United 0 Cluj 1: Alberto's rocket shocks Reds as Romanians snatch win
07:57 GMT, 6 December 2012
In the context of what happened to Manchester United in the Champions League last season, this has been a satisfactory campaign.
Sir Alex Ferguson will know, however, that a significant improvement will be needed in February if significant progress is to be made.
A year ago, of course, United were heading for the Europa League after a dismal night in Basle that saw them dumped out of this competition and lose captain Nemanja Vidic to injury for the rest of the season.
Defeat: Rooney and Co were on the wrong side of a 1-0 scoreline at Old Trafford
Away goal: Luis Alberto celebrates after scoring against Manchester United
Man Utd: De Gea, Jones, Wootton, Smalling, Buttner, Powell (Macheda 73), Cleverley (Scholes 45), Giggs (Fletcher 86), Welbeck, Rooney, Hernandez.
Subs Not Used: Lindegaard, Da Silva, Young, Vermijl.
CFR Cluj-Napoca: Mario Felgueiras, Ivo Pinto, Cadu,Piccolo, Rada, Muresan, Luis Alberto, Rui Pedro (Aguirregaray 71), Camora, Sougou (Kapetanos 90), Bastos (Maftei 78).
Subs Not Used: Stancioiu, Sepsi, Bjelanovic, Godemeche.
Booked: Cadu, Mario Felgueiras.
Goals: Luis Alberto 56.
Referee: Daniele Orsato (Italy)
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This time, United qualified for the last 16 with two games to spare and head into a Barclays Premier League meeting with Manchester City on Sunday having rested virtually their whole squad against the Romanians of Cluj.
Nevertheless, a successive European defeat — they lost in Turkey a fortnight ago — will hardly delight Ferguson. In terms of application on a night when some of these players were supposedly playing for derby places, this was modest stuff.
For Cluj, a famous victory and a more than respectable 10 points in the group. Sadly for them, there was to be no qualification and they must make do with the Europa League; late Galatasaray goals in Braga saw to that.
Nevertheless, this was their night and victory came their way thanks to a truly spectacular goal.
On a night that featured moments of casual football from Ferguson’s team, the manner in which they gave the ball away in the 56th minute was unimpressive.
Paul Scholes’s pass from his own half never reached Nick Powell and when Luis Alberto moved forward, Chris Smalling backed away to allow the Cluj central midfielder to drive a wicked swerving shot into the corner of the goal via David de Gea’s left-hand post.
Shocked: Javier Hernandez, Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck react after Cluj take the lead
Going close: Danny Welbeck heads just wide
Off target: Rooney played the full 90 minutes at Old Trafford but failed to get on the scoresheet
It was a terrific goal and in the 30 minutes that remained, United enjoyed plenty of possession but never looked like replying.
Afterwards, Ferguson’s assessment was
surprisingly generous. ‘We were beaten by a wonder goal and there was
nothing we could do about that,’ said the United manager. ‘I thought we
did OK. We created quite a few chances.
‘We put a very young team out and they did very well at times.Sunday will be different altogether.
‘In terms of the defending, it’s the senior players that have to get their act together.’
Down you go: Nick Powell is challenged by Ricardo Cadu
Tangled up: Cluj's Lonut Rada challenges Manchester United's Javier Hernandez
The one advantage of this night was
secured before kick-off in that nine or 10 of Sunday’s likely side were
rested. Of last night’s starters, perhaps only Wayne Rooney, Danny
Welbeck and De Gea have a realistic chance of playing at the weekend.
Yet one could argue that a team
containing those three along with Paul Scholes — on for the injured Tom
Cleverley at half-time — Ryan Giggs, Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling
and Phil Jones might have been expected to do better.
As it was, this was a performance largely devoid of life, never mind inspiration.
Close, but not close enough: Tom Cleverley sees his shot saved by Mario Felgueiras
United did have their moments and could have scored during a flurry of good attacking play towards the end of the first half.
Hernandez was denied by Mario
Felgueiras’s feet before the Cluj goalkeeper palmed away a delicate
Rooney chip and Smalling headed wide from a few yards out when the ball
was slung back in from the opposite side.
Earlier in the half Cleverley had
been denied twice by Felgueiras rushing from goal, while a Powell shot
struck a defender after Jones had crossed well from the right.
Shot on goal: Hernandez is put under pressure by Daniel Ivo Pinto
Cluj had created chances too,
though. De Gea kicked away a ball that deflected off Smalling’s toe
before young Scott Wootton was required to block a shot from Modou
Sougou just as the forward looked set to score.
As it turned out, that was an
indication of what was to come. For the main event on Sunday, United
will hope their first XI can do rather better.
But Ferguson will have been pleased
with the work of Jones on his second start in nine months, and if a
player who was so valuable to United early last season can stay fit he
will be an asset over the coming weeks. Last night also saw Rooney, who
was his usual energetic self, complete 90 minutes.
Ferguson added: ‘Phil Jones was
fantastic and we got exactly what we wanted as far as he was concerned.
The more game time players like Smalling and Jones can get, the better
it will be.
‘Wayne is now close to full fitness also and hopefully he will be approaching top form come Sunday.’