Champions League – United held as Ronaldo returns
Villarreal held Manchester United to a frustrating goalless draw in Group E as the holders got the defence of their Champions League title off to a disappointing start.
Not even the return of Cristiano Ronaldo – making his first appearance of the season as a second half substitute – could inspire United as the hosts dropped their first home points in the competition since the Spanish side last played at Old Trafford in the 2005-06 season.
Ronaldo was introduced in the 62nd minute to a warm reception from the United faithful, whose fondness for the forward has clearly not been affected by the summer’s unsettling transfer rumours.
The stage was set for the Portuguese to make it a comeback to remember, but despite his best efforts – including a volley into the hands of Villarreal keeper Diego Lopez, a header wide of the post and an excellent cross from which Jonny Evans hit the woodwork late on – Villarreal succeeded in frustrating the holders, much like they did three years ago when they came away from Manchester with a similar scoreline.
Deprived of Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Carrick through injury and Paul Scholes through suspension, Alex Ferguson was forced to send out a much-changed side to the one that lost to Liverpool at the weekend.
But the unfamiliar line-up enjoyed far the better of the opening period by the time Ronaldo arrived his team-mates had already had two first-half penalty shouts turned down. At the other end the Liga side also hit the woodwork through Guillermo Franco‘s fine second half effort.
On both occasions referee Wolfgang Stark waved play on – and on both occasions television replays proved the German official to have made mistakes.
Prior to the first penalty shout, United had already threatened the visitors’ goal, Rio Ferdinand getting to an Owen Hargreaves corner, only to fluff his lines after being unsighted by a floundering Lopez.
The Villarreal keeper looked shaky early on and Nani was the first to realise United may be able to capitalise. The Portuguese winger unleashed a long range effort soon after Lopez’s flap from the corner and again the keeper showed a lack of composure, spilling the shot into the danger area in front of him. Fortunately for the visitors, the colour of the shirt the ball fell to was yellow, and not red.
Park then saw a shot well blocked by Edmilson after a neat interchange of passes between Fletcher and Nani had fashioned a shooting opportunity on the edge of the Villarreal box.
But as the half progressed, some semblance of confidence returned to Lopez, and by the time he was next tested – on the half-hour mark – he was equal to Carlos Tevez‘s well-struck 25-yarder.
Despite United’s dominance of possession, Villarreal still managed to find a way through the hosts’ defence – Robert Pires, the former Arsenal winger, tested Edwin van der Sar on 29 minutes with a crisp low strike, but it was never going to beat the Dutch keeper from such a tight angle.
News of Ronaldo’s imminent return – confirmed by Alex Ferguson at the break – gave United a lift at the start of the second half, but before last season’s top scorer in the competition could get on the pitch, the best chance of the game fell the visitors’ way.
Indeed, Villarreal were unlucky not to take a surprise lead when Mexico international Franco’s clever flick struck the inside of the far upright following a lovely, flowing passing move that had carved open United’s defence.
It proved to be Villarreal’s last real chance of note as United stepped up a gear following Ronaldo’s introduction.
Evans saw a standing header go the wrong side of the post before the spotlight fell on Ronaldo in the 65th minute as a Tevez cross reached him near the penalty spot. But the substitute’s timing was out and he miscued a first-time volley, hitting the ball into the ground and into the grateful arms of Lopez.
Minutes later Ronaldo was the architect of United’s next attack, threading a pass through for Rooney to run on to. The England striker squared the ball to Tevez, but the Argentinian’s poke past Lopez was cleared off the line by Gonzalo Rodriguez.
There was still time for one further chance to fall Ronaldo’s way, a header from Nani’s deep cross which flew wide of the mark but that, along with Evans’s late effort off the post, rather summed up United’s frustrating evening.