DCSIMG

Gallant Celtic are undone by Solskjaer's strike

DEFEAT for Celtic at Old Trafford may have been easily predicted, but the bizarre manner of it could not have been fantasised by a painter who specialises in surrealism.

Taking the lead through Jan Venegoor of Hesselink, falling behind to Louis Saha's double, equalising through Shunsuke Nakamura and finally, cruelly, being denied a point by United substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was not included in any pre-match script for this Champions League Group F opener.

If Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United ultimately deserved their victory over Gordon Strachan's side - they were denied on a number of occasions by the outstanding Artur Boruc - they would certainly not have expected the kind of resistance they encountered.

Even allowing for the reputations of both teams for exhilarating attacking football, nobody inside the great stadium could have envisaged the exchange of firepower which turned the match into an exhibition, reminiscent of the friendlies they have played over the years.

Whatever menace United's renowned aggressiveness was expected to be brought to bear on the match, Strachan was clearly determined to combat it with an approximation of his own. As predicted, the Celtic manager opted for a five-man midfield, but, given the identities of the personnel, it could hardly be described as ultra- defensive.

Indeed, with Jiri Jarosik replacing Maciej Zurawski in the only change in the team who beat Aberdeen last Saturday - and with Aiden McGeady and Shunsuke Nakamura retaining their places on the wings - Strachan could have been accused of the kind of boldness that is often interpreted as suicidal.

Jarosik is not known for his readiness to back-track and provide protection for defenders, and, operating just behind Vennegoor of Hessselink, he left most of the deeper areas of midfield to Thomas Gravesen and Neil Lennon.

When the towering Dutch striker gave the Scottish champions the lead, there would be unanimity among 6,000 or so Celtic fans that the manager - about whom there had been a certain mistrust - is a genius and Vennegoor of Hesselink a gift from the gods.

There may have been a temporary change of heart about the player, at least following the sequence of events which gave United the lead, but that would have been ditched when Nakamura restored the visitors to equality by the end of an astonishing first half.

There had already been threats at both goals by the time Vennegoor of Hesselink opened the scoring. The muscular striker showed unsuspected nimbleness in receiving a long ball from goalkeeper Artur Boruc and turning away from Rio Ferdinand, although it should be said that the England defender appeared, at that instant, to have reverted to the indolence that often makes him a source of frustration to his manager and supporters. Vennegoor of Hesselink required no help with the finish, however, striding into the box and hitting the ball left- footed low to the left of Edwin van der Sar for his third goal in as many appearances for his new club.

If there was no real surprise about the home side equalising - they had exerted considerable pressure without contriving opportunities - there was good reason to question the decision by referee Lubos Michel to award the penalty kick when Ryan Giggs went down in a challenge from Boruc. With both men chasing a long ball from Paul Scholes out on United's left, there appeared to be minimal contact between them, but Giggs hit the turf and must have landed awkwardly, as he did enough damage to force his removal, to be replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. While Giggs was being attended, Saha drove the penalty conversion low and hard to the right of Boruc.

If there was blame to be apportioned for the loss of the goal which gave United the lead, it would have to be directed at Gravesen. It was his error that allowed Scholes possession, the midfielder then sending a brilliant through ball to Saha. The French striker's finish was not convincing, but the ball hit Boruc and rolled slowly over the line.

One of Strachan's primary reasons for fielding Nakamura in a match that might have been too physical for him was thrillingly manifested when the Japanese midfielder was given the opportunity to demonstrate his expertise with free kick. His wonderful-controlled shot from 20 yards curled over the wall far to the left of Van der Sar.

Since he has been arguably the most valuable substitute in the history of the game, Solskjaer would shock no-one by restoring United's advantage before most of the fans were re-seated at the start of the second half. But he did receive priceless assistance from another dreadful blunder from Gravesen and misfortune from Boruc. Gravesen, utterly without a challenge, sent a pass from his own defence straight to Scholes, who instantly played in Saha with another killing through pass. Boruc made a terrific save from Saha and was extremely unlicky to see the ball go straight to the left foot of Solskjaer, who drove it into the unprotected net from close range.

The Poland goalkeeper had to repeat his exceptional work layer, when Saha, a constant threat, ran and dived to meet a cross from Darren Fletcher on the right, bulleting the header towards Boruc's right corner and suitably bewildered when the goalkeeper kept it out.

By then, Celtic had lost Mark Wilson to injury - he was replaced by Paul Telfer - and Strachan had sent on Kenny Miller for the comparatively pedestrian Jarosik. And, with just 20 minutes remaining, Shaun Maloney came off the bench to replace McGeady, whose form seems to have deserted him.

But that third goal from Solskjaer seemed to inspire the home side into the kind of swarming aggression that is their trademark and they would have scored again but for another extraordinary piece of action from Boruc.

It was a moment that also appeared to underline the lack of match fitness and sharpness of Rooney, the formidable striker returning after a three-week suspension. Taking advantage of a rare slip by Lee Naylor, Rooney bolted into the area with only Boruc to beat, but the goalkeeper again got down to divert the shot, which had been placed low to his left. It was the kind of pulse-stopping moment that characterised a match that was almost freakish in its unusualness.

 
 
 

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