Galatasaray 1 -0 Manchester United
As usual, playing football in Istanbul is like competing in a bear pit. With an incredibly loud crowd raising the decibel level and the flow of relentlessly expectorated spit so shiny to the point where television viewers could see gobs of it glimmering off Anders Lindegaard’s broad green-shirted back, the experience was always going to be daunting for United’s team of, umm, young Turks. Depleted already and battered by a home team gifted with carte blanche to batter them into submission, and definitely spoilt and unused to playing on unkempt spongy surfaces, United did themselves more or less proud. A Galatasaray side with little high-quality talent but much determination did just enough to win and leave themselves favorites to overcome the challenge of the Romanian team S.C. Cluj who beat Portugal’s Braga in the other group game to go into second place.
Already Group H winners, United were never going to quite come to grips with the spitting horde of 43,000 at their new Ali Sami Yen Stadium, where the Turkish champions had somehow never previously won a home European match. With a populist ultra-natonalist government in power and much political flux on the streets because of the Syrian Civil War, Galatasaray’s coach Fatih Terim had been seen on all kinds of Turkish media all week calling the game “one of the most important games in Galatasaray’s history. We must rekindle the old atmosphere,” he said, appealing to his team’s version of the Italian Ultras, or, ‘The Boys of Hell’ as they like to refer to themselves. Consequently, the crowd brought scores of smoke bombs, flares, rotted fruit and fecal matter to use as missiles. Turkish police and auxiliaries simply stood by, although it seemed to this witness that just as many Turkish players were hit by the tidal wave of Anatolian food and body waste as United’s. Kind of funny, I guess, if you’re a Turk! Is this what Osama Bin-Ladn meant when he spoke of “Restoring the Caliphate!”? Thus, even though United might have been have been excused for being a tad more belligerent, they are now more the team of Michael Carrick than Roy Keane. Just as subdued as in their Saturday loss to Norwich City in the P.L. any desire to reciprocate belligerence was never on the cards.
Now Manchester United are certainly not an all-English team these days, but they pouted with that legendary stiff upper lip, stood their muddy ground and let the Turks bring it on. The back line, consisting of Rafael Di Silva and Alexander Büttner on the flanks and a very weakened Phil Jones, just back from injury, and Michael Carrick operating as emergency center back, was bound to suffer. With the promising Nick Powell slotted in between Anderson and Cleverley, and Darren Fletcher operating as a sort of loose sweeper, United wanted to play a narrow revolving diamond. This system worked well against Chelsea and fitfully against Braga and Aston Villa, but the onus is on ball retention. With Cleverley and Powell both being so physically slight, United were completely dependent upon Fletcher and Anderson to both win and hold the ball, and then distribute it carefully. This did not happen.
Things were delightfully open in the first half, a superb swerving shot from Burak Yilmaz was well foiled by a superb parried Anders Lindegaard save. Then, minutes later, Danny Welbeck almost playing in Cleverley after double nutmegging Emanuel Eboué. Moments after that, however, Semih Kaya put his studs blatantly into Cleverley’s left shin and was miraculously lucky to not receive a red card from the referee Carlos Velasco Carballo.
Still despite the inability of both Fletcher and Anderson to take control and create that final killer ball, United kept possession fairly well in spite of being troubled by Amrabat and Riera on the left. Yet why Rafael was booked for holding back Amrabat is a mystery, while Galatasaray’s thuggish enforcer Felipe Melo, ‘a/k/a The Pitbull, simply got away with kicking, gouging and stomping upon every United midfielder. Constantly engaged in smiley-face bites of running chit-chat with Mello, the referee Carballo giggled like an enamored school girl.
35 minutes in , winger Hamit Altintop had a superb shot smothered by Lindegaard. Galatasaray’s fine Uruguayan goaleeper Sergio Muslera then made a series of saves from Carrick, Hernandez and, twice, Cleverley. Three minutes from half time, a superbly taken Cleverley free kick was deftly chipped into the right spot, only for Nick Powell to head against the crossbar.
Having been very tricky and lively in the first half, Cleverly and Powell began to show tiredness, worn down by Felipe Mello’s relentless use of the dark arts and plain old-fashioned thuggery against them bith. Indeed, on one occasion, Mello kicked Powell so blatantly in the groin, it seemed like an infomercial for some exotic new-age kind of cod-piece. Mello, once thought of as the next superstar back in his native Brazil, desperately wants another chance at the big time after too many incidents of hot-headedness in the Calcio and back in Brazil.. He is at home in Istanbul, however, and having had a header saved by Lindegaard in the 52nd minute, he turned to Boys of Hell behind the goal and orchestrated them to pump up the volume. Amidst a wall of deafeniung noise, Altintop’s corner was headed home brilliantly by a high-flying Burak Yilmaz,who pushed aside Powell and Fletcher as if they were a couple of mannequins.
Now, with United on the ropes, Galatasaray attacked in relentless waves as smoke from scores of newly lit flares thickened the on field air. Suddenly the air became pea soup-thick enough with smoke from flares as the home team kept up the attacks, that it may have culminated in another Altintop missile hitting the bar again. Although United held on, it was also easy to feel depressed about United’s utter lack of of determination and energy in midfield for the final fifteen minutes, although they did stage one attack in the 89th minute after a deflected Javier Hernández shot in the 89th minutes was their Uruguayan goalie’s only real work in the second half.
United, playing the Romanian team CFR Cluj next week, now have Galatasaray’s dignity and future in their hands, especially if the Turks beat or draw with Braga..