RC Deportivo La Coruña 0-2 Manchester United FC
It took a wonder goal from David Beckham, a stroke of tactical genius from Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United FC's best performance in the UEFA Champions League since the season they won it to defeat RC Deportivo La Coruña, but none of this will be of any consolation to the Spanish club or its fans.
A heavy price
Deportivo's dream of winning Europe's top club competition, more of a realistic hope than just pure fantasy after some fine recent results, was all but shattered on a rainy night in Galicia which bore all the hallmarks of a spring evening in Manchester. United's pride was hurt by two defeats at the hands of their Spanish opponents in the first group stage, and on Tuesday at the Riazor stadium they made Deportivo pay a heavy price in the quarter-final first leg.
On the back foot
Before the match, most conjecture in the United camp had focused on whether Ferguson would use Ole Gunnar Solskjær as a second striker, alongside Ruud van Nistelrooij. But instead he asked Ryan Giggs to play in an advanced central-midfield role, moving Paul Scholes out to the left flank. This, plus the deployment of Nicky Butt as a man-marker of playmaker Juan Valerón, put Deportivo on the back foot from the start.
Giggs makes it difficult for Depor
"To play two direct strikers in these games is very difficult," the United coach explained afterwards. "With Ryan dropping into centre midfield, and from there going forward, you know he's got the ability to beat men, he's got marvellous pace, he's got courage, and he made it very, very difficult for Deportivo tonight."
Irureta hails United
It was a view shared by Ferguson's opposite number, Javier Irureta: "Giggs is very dangerous in that position, and in the second half he was very active and very difficult to mark because of his pace." In truth Giggs missed two fine chances in that second period to put the tie firmly beyond the reach of Irureta’s team.
Even so, few will be betting on Deportivo at Old Trafford next Wednesday. But if there is a straw for them to clutch at it could be that United's midfield will be severely disrupted. They were already without their Argentinian international Juan Sebastián Veron for this game, and he must be rated doubtful for the return.
Keane and Beckham doubts
Added to that the United captain, Roy Keane, pulled a hamstring towards the end of the first half and may be out for the rest of the season; Paul Scholes was booked and will be suspended; and Beckham was the victim of a poor challenge from the otherwise admirable Diego Tristán in the dying seconds, picking up an ankle injury.
While Tristán's tackle was inexcusable, his frustration was understandable. After Beckham had given United the lead with the kind of goal that sets him apart from most players – chipping José Molina in the Deportivo goal from fully 35 metres – Tristán himself had chances to equalise but was thwarted once by the excellent Ronny Johnsen and once by French international goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.
Soon after the second of those chances, an untimely slip by Cesar allowed Van Nistelrooij to convert Mikaël Silvestre's cross and suddenly Deportivo's task was enormous. "In football nothing is definite," said Irureta, "and if we can score early in the second leg maybe we can still do it. But it's going to be very difficult."
Ferguson meanwhile was content. "I rate that performance really highly," he said. "You have to go back to 1999 and our away games at Juventus [FC], Milan [AC], [FC Bayern] München and in the final at [FC] Barcelona. They were all great performances and you need to play at that level to succeed in Europe. Tonight we played one of the best sides in Spain and Europe, and we coped very well with it."
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