The hype going into this match was of course centered on the 7-1 thrashing that Roma took from Manchester United last season at this same stage. However, anyone with common sense could see that this match would have very little in common with that famous night.
For starters, this match was at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome not Old Trafford. Secondly, the teams had a slightly different feel about them with Roma missing their talisman Francesco Totti and hoping that their big No9, Mirko Vucinic, could supply them with a goal or two. United were missing Gary Neville through long-term injury.
One thing about the formations that were shown on TV, Ferguson decided to employ Ronaldo in the unusual role of a lone striker with Park, who was a bit of a surprise starter, and Rooney doing the hard work in behind him.
Roma lined up with their usual 5-man midfield and with United employing a 4-3-2-1/4-3-3 formation, the early going was a bit scattered. When United did get spells of possession, they moved the ball around leisurely and Roma did little to pressure them. Neither side showed a great deal of urgency in the early going. United were getting little wide play as their fullbacks were cautious, Wes Brown especially, of being hit on the counter-attack. Brown sat a bit deeper as the perceived threat of Mancini loomed. As the game wore on, it became clear that Mancini was not going to have much impact due to his poor decisions when he did get possession in the United half. This allowed Brown to venture forward a little more often and create more space for the United forwards.
One of the best battles of the night was seeing Cristiano Ronaldo, employed as a striker, going up against Philippe Mexes. Mexes did well for large spells to close Ronaldo down; making sure that he had little time or space when the ball was at his feet. Ronaldo took a fair amount of physical contact in the first half but I felt he spent too much time with his arms aloft and a pouty look on his face. His energy would be better spent getting up and getting back into the action. I felt the ref in charge had a decent game — he gave free-kicks when they made sense and bookings for repeated fouling.
Roma looked the more likely side to score in the first half as Vucinic continued to ask questions of the visiting defence. In the 28th minute, he turned Rio Ferdinand inside out and spooned his shot just over the bar. Shortly after this Nejmana Vidic injured his knee by landing awkwardly after challenging for a ball in the air. He was replaced at the 33 minute mark by John O’Shea. I had thought Wes Brown might move into central defence and O’Shea would come in at RB but Sir Alex obviously felt otherwise. I have to say that on reflection it makes as much sense to leave Brown out on the right as he has spent the majority of the season out there and O’Shea offers a little more size to go against a player like Vucinic.
Roma continued to pressure but against the run of play, Ronaldo popped up with a powerful header that gave United some breathing room. Rooney started the play with a sublime turn against Mexes. He then played in Paul Scholes who drifted a soft cross back across the box for Ronaldo to run onto.
I thought at half-time that Roma should sub Mancini off and bring on Guily. Mancini was more often than not wasteful in possession and while Roma enjoyed longer spells of possession around the United penalty area, they were doing little with those chances. Roma turned up the intensity to start the second half and United look to be on the ropes. Around the hour mark, Edwin Van der Sar came up with a majestic save from a Vucinic header to keep United in the lead.
The overall flow of the match started to change a few minutes after Owen Hargreaves with the Van der Sar save the wake-up call that United needed. With Hargreaves on the field, Carrick and Scholes were able to more fully boss the midfield area and one can only imagine how the match might have gone had Hargreaves started in place of Anderson. The young Brazilian does show flashes of excellence but looks a bit too unpolished for this level of competition at the moment. I would be surprised if he started the second leg at Old Trafford.
The game was effectively killed off when a mix-up in the Roma backline allowed Wayne Rooney to pounce and toe-poke home his 6th goal in 7 games against Italian teams. Wes Brown’s deep cross was kept alive by some good hussle from Ji Sung Park who nodded the ball back into the middle where Doni intercepted but spilled it to Rooney’s feet and he wasted no time in slotting it home. A second away goal makes Roma’s job monumental for the return leg as it is rare that a 2-0 away lead is squandered in the Champions League knockout phase.
I think had Roma taken advantage of their early dominance that this match could have been much different but United turned in a very clinical and professional performance. They got more than they could have hoped for and are setup very nicely to advance to the semis. The job is not done yet but barring a major collapse at Old Trafford, they should progress.
United’s thoughts will start turn to their probable semi-final opponents, Barcelona. 17-year-old striker Bojan Krkic struck the all-important away goal in the 12th minute to give his team a slender victory over Schalke in Gelsenkirchen.