Last updated : 12 August 2004 By Editor


There were times last night when the worry lines on Sir Alex Ferguson's face stood out like contours on a map, but Manchester United's qualification for the Champions League should be a relatively simple affair after emerging unscathed from the Romanian capital from a tie they simply dared not lose.

Trailing to a 10-minute goal, missing nine players and looking worryingly vulnerable in defence, United were indebted to a Ryan Giggs equaliser and a moment of immense fortune, courtesy of Angelo Alistar's own-goal, to set up what should be a night of quiet celebrations in the return leg, not least for the club's accountants. A minimum £15m is guaranteed for reaching Europe's premier club competition, so the men in suits at Old Trafford will be as happy as anyone at the club. That money could be critical to Ferguson's hopes of recruiting reinforcements for his depleted squad, with a new forward considered a matter of urgency before the transfer deadline on August 31.

In the absence of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Louis Saha, Paul Scholes was shunted forward to partner Alan Smith in attack and Ferguson is clearly intent on using Diego Forlan in only exceptional circumstances.


Even Mike Tyson can be beaten," said Dinamo Bucharest's winger, Florentin Petre, before this fixture but unlike Danny Williams in Kentucky, the Romanians missed the opportunity of a lifetime.

There was a period, midway through the first half, when it seemed that against a Manchester United lacking fitness and ringcraft this might have been Dinamo's night of nights.

But as so often happens in Europe and the Premiership, minor sides who miss their chances against Manchester United are punished. As were Dinamo Bucharest once Ryan Giggs claimed a wonderfully-timed equaliser, United's reserves of skill and stamina swept them to the brink of qualification for the Champions' League for the ninth successive season.

For United not to make the competition would require a knock-out blow of George Foreman proportions. Even Dinamo's manager, Ioan Andone, described their chances in Manchester as "small".

United suffered a fright but in the event it turned out to be no more than the bomb scare that had the Bucharest police searching the players' rooms yesterday morning. They were carried through by cool, old heads; men like Giggs, Paul Scholes and after a fragile beginning at centre-half, Roy Keane.

Conditions were stamina-sappingly humid, the pitch pitted and United were depleted and debilitated by an intense pre-season schedule designed more to make money than to prepare them for the forthcoming campaign. Ferguson's insecurities were evident as United lined up; he employed Keane in the heart of defence because he carried more physical presence than John O'Shea, who in the event performed surprisingly well in midfield.


Manchester United are not accustomed to slumming it in the Champions League qualifiers, and yesterday was a taste of European football the old way. It started with a bomb scare for Sir Alex Ferguson's team at their hotel in the morning and continued with a tricky pitch and an angry crowd. All the more reason to take comfort in a victory that should be enough to see them through the second leg in two weeks.

When it comes to a gamble on team selection, Ferguson has proved that he is not afraid to play the role of grand improviser at any stage of the season. Last night he pushed John O'Shea into the centre midfield spot and brought Roy Keane back into defence in a ploy he hasn't tried since United played Burnley in a Worthington Cup tie almost two years ago. The stakes this time were much higher.

In fact the move probably owed more to Ferguson's lingering distrust of O'Shea in the centre of defence in Europe than it did about the young Irishman's promise as a midfielder. In the opening exchanges they missed Keane's calming influence in the middle on a pitch that was not the quagmire that had been darkly hinted at, but was rutted and unpredictable nonetheless.


Roused from their beds yesterday morning by frightening rumours of a terrorist threat at the team hotel, Manchester United’s players were subjected to another unpleasant alarm call at the Lia Manoliu stadium last night. Like the earlier bomb scare, it proved to be a false alarm, but it was a necessary one as Sir Alex Ferguson’s team recovered from a disastrous start to record a victory that should all but secure their place in the Champions League group stage.

Missing nine senior players — among them Rio Ferdinand, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy — United confirmed Ferguson’s worst fears by falling behind after only nine minutes, but, inspired by the craft of Paul Scholes and the graft of Alan Smith, they recovered to earn what was ultimately a comfortable victory. Ryan Giggs equalised on 38 minutes, his 21st goal in European competition, before an own goal by Angelo Alistar, the Dynamo Bucharest defender, made the result safe and the second leg, at Old Trafford on August 25, a far less anxious affair.

Giggs had described the fixture as a "banana skin" and their preparations had been far from ideal, from their disappointing form in their warm-up matches, in which they had picked up several injuries and a solitary victory, to a downpour in Bucharest on Tuesday evening, which denied them the chance to train on a difficult playing surface. The bomb scare merely added to the sense of foreboding.

United, though, recovered, aided by the loss of momentum from a Dynamo team who "didn’t know what to do when we went 1-0 up", according to Ioan Andone, their coach. He pointed to a number of lapses in concentration in the build-up to United’s equaliser, but, for all that, it was delightfully executed, Giggs spinning away from his marker and then racing clear of the home defence on to a wonderfully incisive pass from O’ Shea. Giggs still had much to do, but he dribbled past the goalkeeper and shot into an unguarded net with his less-favoured right foot. Thereafter, the result was never really in doubt, with Scholes gaining in influence and Smith hitting a post with a left-foot volley on what, apart from an ugly lunge that earned him a booking, was an encouraging competitive debut. But it was Liam Miller, another making his debut, who created the winning goal within four minutes of his introduction as a substitute. The former Celtic player showed good awareness to drive a cross into the six-yard box, where it was turned in by Alistar.

It was a satisfactory ending to a day that had begun with a fright. "Someone rang the hotel to say there was a bomb there," Ferguson said. "Obviously it was a crank call. The police searched all the rooms and got all the players out of bed. But it wasn’t a problem in the end."

Team: Tim Howard, Gary Neville, John O'Shea, Mikael Silvestre, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Darren Fletcher (Liam Miller), Quinton Fortune, Ryan Giggs (Philip Neville), Roy Keane, Paul Scholes (Diego Forlan), Alan Smith