Wayne Rooney scored a late penalty to give Manchester United a 1-0 win against Rangers and a ticket into the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League.
The match was not only Rooney's first start following a long-standing ankle injury but also his first since signing a lucrative new contract with the Red Devils. The England striker looked back to his goal hungry best, sending Allan McGregor the wrong way after Fabio had been fouled to give the visitors their fateful spot-kick as the final whistle approached. For Rangers, there was no way back and Valencia's hammering of Bursaspor in Spain knocked them out of the competition.
"We knew it was going to be tough. They were organised and disciplined and very difficult to break down," said Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson. "Our away form in Europe has been good over the years and I think we deserved to win it tonight."
Ferguson's Rangers counterpart praised his side's performance. "Credit to them for the way they kept battling away," Walter Smith said. "Man United are a fantastic team but for us there is a little bit of disappointment that a lot of hard work was for nothing in the end."
While Rooney may have scored the match-winning penalty, the striker has not scored for his club in open play since netting the opening goal in a UEFA Champions League quarter-final defeat to Bayern Munich in March. Rooney came very close to ending that record just before half-time, when he rose to meet Fabio's near-post cross, only to guide his header onto the roof of Allan McGregor's bar. It was by far the closest anyone came to breaking the deadlock.
"It took courage for Wayne Rooney to take that penalty," said the United Manager. "It wasn't the easiest of nights for him as he missed a couple of chances. There's still a bit of rustiness to his game."
Rangers routinely had seven men within an imaginary five-yard line to the most advanced United forward, which offered their visitors hardly any room. On the single occasion United's skill got them through, thanks to intricate passes from Ryan Giggs, Nani and Michael Carrick, the chance went begging when Nani drove his first-time effort over with what looked like a toe-poke.
Rangers did cause their opponents some anxious moments. Kenny Miller, who once scored a winner for Wolves against these opponents, was a threat. But the Scotland star has not scored at this level of the game in 14 attempts and one header went harmlessly wide before a United defence lacking rested duo Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic let Miller shoot from an acute angle rather than offering an opening to square. It turned out to be the correct decision as Edwin van der Sar made an excellent feet-first block. As Valencia had virtually wrapped up victory by the break against Bursaspor, Rangers knew they needed to win to survive, which might have led to a more enterprising approach.
United were the ones with the extra class though and Rooney was not that far away from putting them ahead with a 25-yard free-kick. Dimitar Berbatov then wasted a decent opportunity, failing to connect properly with a volley that normally would have expected to put McGregor in trouble.
Carrick was next to get a sight of the Rangers goal and he at least tested McGregor with a low shot which the Scotland keeper beat away. The growing pressure around the home box led to a more enterprising approach from Rangers and Steven Naismith almost profited from some poor defending by Jonny Evans, who needed van der Saar to come to his rescue with a brave block.
Impressive in the first meeting, McGregor was an obdurate presence once more and he denied Berbatov's angled drive with a neat save to his right. Rooney's luckless night continued when he blazed a long-range effort over, then he headed a Giggs' cross wide just after Berbatov had a goalbound shot blocked. It appeared it was not to be Rooney's night when another opportunity sailed wide but five minutes from the end, Naismith made a rash challenge on Fabio and offered the striker a chance to start repaying United supporters following his long, disjointed absence from the club.