Friday, September 19, 2008

Ferguson upbeat despite draw

PARIS: Manchester United began its European Champions League title defense with a damp squib on Wednesday as wily Spanish club Villarreal held it 0-0 at Old Trafford, while Arsenal and Celtic also drew.

United similarly failed to batter down the same rivals - nicknamed the "Yellow Submarine" - home and away three seasons ago - and subsequently saw its group hopes embarrassingly sink without trace.

Celtic took a leaf out of United's book as it could only manage another scoreless showing against Danish minnow Aalborg, coached by Scot Bruce Rioch, at Parkhead.

United fans welcomed back Cristiano Ronaldo into the fold after injury despite his overtures in the direction of Real Madrid for much of the summer - but the Portugal winger was unable to oblige with a match-winning contribution after rising from the bench.

United had won its previous 12 home matches in the tournament going back to Villarreal's last visit - but Ronaldo, who netted 42 times last season including in the final win over Chelsea, and company drew a blank.

Jonny Evans hit the woodwork late on from a Ronaldo cross but United must now ensure it moves swiftly on by collecting full points in Denmark in two week's time.

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who says 10 points should mean passage to the last 16, said he believed the Ronaldo saga was now resolved.

"He now realizes what a great club he is at and how loyal and suppportive the fans are to him," said Ferguson, who added of the result: "I've no complaints. On another day we might have scored four or five."

But the experience of 2005, when a loss to Benfica ended United's interest early, will serve as a timely reminder not to count chickens ahead of a double-header with Celtic, which actually beat the English Premiership champions in a group match in 2006 in Glasgow.

United was still aggrieved after Wednesday's action given that television replays suggested it should have had a penalty for Sebastian Eguren's trip on Park Ji-sung just inside the box.

The visitor's Michael Beauchamp was wrongly red-carded in a case of mistaken identity for a foul on Georgios Samaras, but Aalborg held on for a precious away point.

Arsenal needed a late William Gallas equalizer to salvage a 1-1 draw against Dynamo Kiev in its Group G opener but at least Arsene Wenger's side ended a three-match losing run in Ukraine.

Defeat loomed again after Guinea striker Ismael Bangoura stroked home a second half penalty at the Valeri Lobanovsky Stadium but skipper Gallas struck from close range two minutes from time.

"A point isn't bad but we feel we could do better and could have taken the three points," Gallas said.

Group rivals and two-time champions Porto saw off Turkey's Fenerbahce 3-1 after early goals from Lisandro Lopez, with a fine volley, and Lucho Gonzalez had put the hosts firmly in the driving seat.

In Group F, four-time winner Bayern Munich thanked a solitary goal from Belgian defender Daniel Van Buyten for a valuable 1-0 success away to Steaua Bucharest and French serial domestic champions Lyon was grateful for a late goal from Karim Benzema as it recovered from 2-0 down to draw with Italy's Fiorentina.

In Group H, two-time champion Juventus returned to the event after a two-season absence with a 1-0 home triumph over UEFA Cup winners Zenit St. Petersburg, Alessandro Del Piero netting a magnificent freekick.

In the same group, nine-time winners Real Madrid cruised past Belarus debutants BATA Borisov 2-0 with Sergio Ramos and Ruud van Nistelrooy on target in either half.

Tuesday's highlights saw Chelsea flatten Bordeaux 4-0 as Roma suffered a shock home loss to Romanian debutants Cluj, Liverpool won for the second straight year in Marseille as rivals Atletico Madrid swamped PSV Eindhoven 3-0 away.

Inter Milan won 2-0 at Panathinaikos and Barcelona saw off Sporting Lisbon 3-1 while Cypriot minnows Anorthosis drew at Werder Bremen.

Source: China Daily/Agencies

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