There have, of course, been many who have questioned David Moyes’ tactical astuteness this season, to say the least, but there was little doubt he got it absolutely right in this game. Most had predicted a Bayern torrent and a final inserting of the tail between the legs before United said an unhappy goodbye to this dismal season of 2013-14. Instead, we got a resolute defensive display from the Reds that carried a threat on the break that for a period in the second half became more sustained and for a time carried a genuine hope that we might snatch an unlikely victory. As it was, a draw still leaves Bayern as strong favourites to progress, but they certainly found themselves in a contest that few had anticipated before kick-off.
UEFA Champions League Quarter-Final (First Leg)
Manchester United 1 Bayern Munich 1
Bayern set the pace of the game from the start, with United struggling gamely to keep up, and for a while it seemed only a matter of time before the expected deluge took place. However, they didn’t produce a serious chance until the thirtieth minute, when De Gea produced a fine save to deny Robben, who was turning up in dangerous positions all around the United box. Lahm and Schweinsteiger were marshalling the midfield with their customary poise, while the Germans carried a constant on both wings. The one consolation was that Muller, playing as a lone forward, lacked the cutting edge that might have converted his team’s dominance into early goals.
As it was, the best chance of the first half went to United. Giggs for once found the room in midfield to pick out Rooney, who set Welbeck away with a fine ball. Welbeck’s pace was already proving United’s most potent counter-attacking weapon – he’d already had a goal disallowed earlier in the half – and here he used it to get away from his marker: sadly, with only Neuer to beat, he opted to attempt a deft chip when a blast either side would have been his best option, and the keeper pulled it out of the air with ease.
If this was a rare glimpse of attacking threat in the first period, we saw a far more forward-thinking United emerging after half-time. With Kagawa replacing the injured Giggs, the Reds immediately discovered greater pace in the midfield and began to cause problems for the Bayern defence. It wasn’t long before it produced an end product: when United forced a corner after a brief period of sustained pressure, Rooney produced a gem of a ball that found the head of Vidic and the defender placed his header well beyond the reach of Neuer.
The lead lasted only eight minutes, however. While there was no doubt United were playing with greater confidence and keeping their shape impressively, there was little they could do to stop Schweinsteiger, arriving into the box in the ‘Scholes’ position, latching onto Manzukic’s nod-down and hammering the ball into the roof of the net. Manzukic had been brought on for the ineffectual Muller and his arrival had given the Germans a forward presence they’d lacked in the first half though, again, any expectation that this would lead to a decisive turn around in the game proved unfounded.
Valencia was lucky to stay on the pitch when, already on a yellow, he made a clumsy challenge in the Germans’ penalty area. Had he been sent off, it would have posed even more of a headache because United, already down to the bare bones in terms of defenders, lost Buttner to injury mid-way through the second half. Jones was moved to an unaccustomed role on the left while the fortunate Ecuadorian filled in at right back. Already stretched, it seemed to be asking a lot for United’s makeshift back four to hold out, especially against a team who were capable of the move they produced in the 81st minute, when Robben produced a sublime ball for Ribery, who slid his pass teasingly across the United goal, though thankfully there was no incoming forward to supply a finishing touch.
The second Bayern goal didn’t arrive, however, and the greater threat United carried in the second half was emphasised by two incidents late in the game that may yet have implications for the fate of this tie. Chicharito, who’d come on as a late substitute, turned Martinez, who upended him and received a yellow card that will keep him out of the second leg. He will be joined on the sidelines by Schweinsteiger, who was sent off in the closing minutes after a poor challenge on Rooney that was met by some fanciful allegations of diving by both the player and his manager.
While Bayern certainly have the strength in depth to shrug off such inconveniences, the absence of the latter would certainly weaken any team and the loss of Martinez removes a likely replacement.
Of course, a United victory in Munich remains more of a wish than a hope and in normal circumstances this result would have been viewed as nowhere near good enough to take into the second leg. But this is season 2013/14, these are not normal circumstances and the Reds will certainly go to the return with a lot of restored confidence and certainly a lot of restored pride.