And so, then, to The Battle of Britain, the Auld Rivals, the English Champions against their Scottish counterparts. Unfortunately, the match had to come along and spoil all the romantic platitudes. Celtic were completely outclassed, even though United were a little way off their current imperious, swaggering, best. Pre-match rumours surrounded – predictably – Cristiano Ronaldo, Sir Alex suggesting he might rest the winger after two matches for Portugal last week. Ronaldo, it seems, overruled his manager, playing 80 minutes before being replaced by Park Ji-Sung. The other selection issues for United were at the back and up front. Berbatov was again preferred to Tevez in the attack, whilst Johnny Evans got the nod ahead of Wes Brown. Johnny Evans is what Steve Bruce used to look like before the first time he broke his nose.
Top-flight teams from Scotland have, in recent years, become rather over-run with foreign players, so Celtic’s selection was rather pleasing on the eye. Comprised of five home-grown players, plus one Englishman and an Irishman, it was a half-way to Lisbon Lions vibe. However, nationalistic fervour aside, nothing could shake the feeling that the Bhoys were in for a long night. Strikers Giorgios Samaras and Jan Vennegor of Hesselink were both missing through injury, so Gordon Strachan opted for a 4-5-1 formation which was compact but lacked cutting edge.
Nevertheless, it was Celtic who had the first shot on target, their selection of the correct moment to counter being excellent all night. Their outstanding running back of the game, deadly number 46 shirt Aidan McGeady, saw his shot parried away to the left by Edwin Van der Sar. Almost immediately, United woke up and the match was over as a contest. But whilst United were to go close twice within the next five minutes, the first half proved to be the story of the game in microcosm. Celtic were neat, compact and very difficult to break down through the centre, Gary Caldwell having a good game as a defensive midfielder. The space that this afforded United on the flanks, though, was not fully exploited by the home side, as time and again a good chance would go begging for the want of a more accurate final ball.
It’s to Celtic’s credit, then, that United’s first two goals came about from set pieces, rather than their rapid, interchanging open play. It’s credit to Celtic’s defensive organisation, too, that both goals were also offside. Sadly for them, the linesmen on either touchline were largely oblivious to the intricacies of that particular rule, both strikes standing. Both also fell to Berbatov, starting to look at home in the red shirt and linking up well with Rooney all night. His first goal, on 29 minutes, was jabbed past Artur Boruc in the 6-yard box after John O’Shea knocked down a Nani corner. The second, from similar range, came 6 minutes after the break, the Polish goalkeeper only able to parry a thunderbolt Ronaldo free-kick.
Also to Celtic’s credit is the fact that their resolutely firey and ginger coaching staff managed to stay calm in the face of this injustice. This was rewarded 3 minutes later, as Rooney had a goal chalked off for offside following a neat Berbatov lay off, despite being several yards onside. The Scottish champions had begun the second half looking a little more willing to attack, but the extra space this afforded United through the centre of the park was their undoing. The third goal was added 15 minutes from the end, Tevez – on for a confused looking Berbatov – laying a ball across the edge of the box for Rooney which the form man delicately placed in the right-hand corner of Boruc’s goal. After the “offside” goal, and several other decent opportunities, there was a distinct feeling of inevitability about this, as Rooney was again the classiest player on the field. His Celtic counterpart, Scott McDonald, was reduced to dropping back to his own defensive third to get the ball, at which point he had no-one to pass to – Nakamura particularly having a distinctly anonymous game.
The overall appearance of this match was that of a training game. United made their extra class pay, and after McGeady’s early effort, Celtic barely challenged again; Johnny Evans, a centre back, spending significant spells of the last half hour at inside left. United lacked the cutting edge they’ll need at later stages of the competition, but Celtic – yet to score in this year’s Champions’ League – on this evidence will probably be doing well to finish third in section and qualify for the UEFA Cup. Already, after the poor showings by Rangers, Motherwell and Queen of the South in Europe this year, it is widely expected that UEFA will be withdrawing immediate qualification for the group stages of the Champions’ League to the Scottish champions from 2010/2011. The chasm continues to grow.