Manchester United 1 - FC Porto 1

Tuesday 9th March 2004
Old Trafford Manchester

Manchester United whimpered out of the European Champions League courtesy of an 89th minute equaliser that gave FC Porto a lead on aggregate.

In a heavily defensive game, United's downfall was, typically, masterminded by the Referee and his assistants. By failing to clamp down on diving of the Portuguese League Champions, the Referee did a dis-service to his trade. The linesman, who does not want to be named, wrongly made a game-changing decision when he disallowed a perfectly legal Scholes goal for offside. Such ineptitude at the highest level is very costly, and we can only question: is this guy really one of the top 30 linesmen in Europe? That decision was probably made after having a few swigs of Vodka from his hip-flask, was made on the evidence of seeing two Porto defenders raising their arms, and showed a complete lack of respect and understanding for the rules of the game. Quite simply, it was a disgrace.

The diving and disallowed goal aside, United were good, but not good enough. They lacked their usual composure and "Va va voom" on the ball, and perhaps due to the constant interruptions caused by the diving never seemed to get into the groove.

There was so much at stake on this game that it started tentatively. United began to put pressure on from the start, and were creating openings and chances, but none were good enough for Ruud, United's lone striker, to capitalise on. Perhaps van Nistelrooy could have done better when he was gifted the ball with only the keeper to beat, but right now, that is neither here nor there.

As time passed by, neither team seemed to be dominating the game, which is unusual for United at Old Trafford. There were periods of five minute spells where each team created chances at one end, before being counter-attacked for the next five. The game needed a goal to spring to life, and, fortunately for United, O'Shea was the man who created it. His marauding run down the left wing was followed by a sweet cross to the head of Paul Scholes, who nodded the ball past the over-acting Vitor Baia.

Porto never seemed to have much chance of getting a goal, with all the United team charging down shots, chasing the ball, and playing with real conviction. Just before half-time Scholes was found in space just two yards from goal by a Giggs through ball. He prodded the ball over the Baia again, before running off to celebrate. Lady Luck was certainly favouring Porto when the fat Russian linesman despicably claimed it was offside.

At half-time, Sir Alex had to bring of Djemba-Djemba with a suspected broken rib, caused "accidentally" by the flailing elbow of Costinha. Eric had been playing excellently as a holding midfielder, and had kept Deco - one of Porto's most influential players quiet for the first half. Sir Alex chose to put Saha on in his place, but a less attacking player may well have been a better option given the circumstances.

The game was pretty hum-drum for much of the second half. Both teams attacked, but neither could find the killer touch. Ronaldo came on, was promptly injured, and was carried back off again. The Portuguese even had the cheek to moan that Ronny was diving, and refused to stop the game to allow him treatment. Such unsportsmanlike conduct is only to be expected from FC Porto.

With minutes left on the clock, FC Porto scrambled a goal in. A free-kick from 30 yards out tested Howard in nets, but all he could do was pat the ball out to the nearest FC Porto player. The United defence had gone to sleep, and Costinha had all day to slam the ball home. One wonders whether Jose Mourinho, the Porto manager, will be brought to justice by UEFA for leaving his technical area and inciting the crowd. I guess it just depends which rule-book they decide to use this time the one for Man United and England, or the one they use for everyone else.

United suddenly realised that they had to play with urgency, and began hoofing the ball forwards. They had an attempt cleared off the line, and the ball was in and around the box for pretty much all the remaining time, but the ball simply didn't want to go in, and the game ended disappointingly.

United have not turned into a rubbish side over-night, and this same squad of players were sitting pretty at the top of the league, had the meanest defence in the land, and were looking extremely competent in Europe before Christmas. Once the FA realised they could destroy United's season, they had to suspend Rio for 8 months (Why are we still waiting for his appeal?). We will be back, and we will conquer. Keep the faith.

Man Utd: Howard; Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Brown, O'Shea; Fletcher (Ronaldo 74 (Solskjaer 83), Djemba-Djemba (Saha 46), Butt, Giggs, Scholes; van Nistelrooy. Subs not used: Carroll, Bellion, Kleberson, Forlan. Booked: Phil Neville, Scholes,

FC Porto: Vitor Baia, Paulo Ferreira, Jorge Costa (Pedro Emanuel 36), Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente, Alenitchev (Ricardo Fernandes 81), Costinha, Maniche, Deco, Carlos Alberto (Jankauskas 61), McCarthy. Subs not used: Nuno, Ricardo Costa, Bosingwa, Bruno Morales. Booked: Maniche, Costinha, McCarthy

Referee: Valentin Ivanov (Russia) Attendence: 67,029