Manchester United FC allowed their class to tell in their opening match of the 2002/03 UEFA Champions League as they saw off battling debutants Maccabi Haifa with a 5-2 victory.
Although Maccabi scored twice, the night was all about United. The hosts will have gained plenty of confidence for next week's trip to the team who overcame them in last season's semi-finals, Bayer 04 Leverkusen. The English side recovered from the shock of going behind after just eight minutes to Yaniv Katan's neat finish and overran their opponents in midfield to regain control.
United lined up in their usual 4-4-2 formation. Phil Neville played in central midfield in the absence of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. The latter had a hip injury and was replaced by the returning Juan Sebastián Verón, the only change from United's 1-0 league defeat by Leeds United AFC on Saturday.
Maccabi were missing Nigerian striker Yakubu Ayegbini, scorer of two goals in the 2-0 third qualifying round first-leg victory against SK Sturm Graz. The 19-year-old was suspended after his sending-off in the second leg. The Israeli champions were also without Lithuanian midfield player Raimondas Zutautas, who failed to recover from a thigh muscle strain, and his place in the starting eleven was taken by Eyal Almoshnino. Maccabi lined up in a 4-5-1 formation, and packed the midfield, with Walid Badir, Giovani Rosso, Nenad Pralija, Michael Zandberg and Almoshnino, operating behind the lone front runner, Yaniv Katan.
Despite just the one man up front, the Maccabi midfield were in adventurous mood from the off and looked to join Katan whenever possible. It paid off in a sudden counter, Badir pushing on through the middle and seeing a choice of either Zandberg to his left or Katan to his right. He chose the latter and Katan made no mistake.
Wave of attacks
Yet scoring so early in the game was perhaps the worst thing Maccabi could have done. It only served to fire up their hosts, and from the restart everything went United's way. It was too early to shut up shop, and Maccabi were unable to stop wave after wave of United attacks. Ryan Giggs soon equalised, before Ole Gunnar Solskjær ensured that the hosts never looked back. The home side's goals were all the result of neat build-up play, particularly from David Beckham and Giggs, who came inside from the flanks at will, while Van Nistelrooij did well to eventually shake off the close attention of Eric Ejiofor.
For Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, it was important his team did not allow Maccabi to get up a head of steam once they went in front. He was particularly wary of the technical ability posed by the Israeli champions. "That was a part of our game that we couldn't underestimate them, and they proved that by scoring twice. Our job was to keep them in their own half and see how they defended."
Phil Neville praised
Sir Alex also identified the holding role of Almoshnino as "important" in the way "he stopped the ball getting to our front players, he was very useful". However, it was his own midfield stopper who ultimately won the battle. Phil Neville had been allocated an unaccustomed central midfield role, but was a composed and confident performer. "Phil was fantastic," added Sir Alex. "He has played really well. He has the versatility, and he is honest and enthusiastic."
KEY PLAYER: Diego Forlán (Manchester United FC)
The Uruguayan striker had never scored in 27 appearances in United colours before last night, but kept his nerve from the penalty spot. It was a goal that his display as a second-half substitute warranted, although he was wasteful at times. The strike should settle his nerves and lead to some more measured finishing.
"I am very happy to score," said Forlán afterwards, but he stressed that he was not worried about the long wait. "I was calm about not scoring because I knew a goal would come. The fans were magnificent, and the way they have supported me has been incredible."
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