A late Carlos Tevez goal levelled the scores on the night, but handed United the advantage in the Reds’ Champions League last 16 tie with Olympique Lyonnais.
Tevez fired home in the 87th minute after Karim Benzema, French football’s finest young talent, scored against the run of play early in the second half. Benzema’s goal looked to have handed Lyon a famous victory on a night that yielded few clear-cut chances but plenty of engaging football.
United travelled to Lyon on a high after a tremendous 4-0 defeat of Arsenal in the FA Cup. Despite producing one of his finest performances in that match, Darren Fletcher had to be content with a spot on the bench in Lyon, alongside Tomasz Kuszczak, Michael Carrick, John O’Shea, Nani, Louis Saha and Tevez.
Before kick-off, Sir Alex admitted some players were unlucky not to retain their spot after the FA Cup victory, but explained the need for experience when playing away from home in Europe.
Of course, nobody in the Reds’ squad can boast Ryan Giggs’ experience. It was his quick thinking that handed United a 1-0 win against Lille the last time United travelled to France (at the same stage of last season’s competition), and on Wednesday night, almost 14-and-a-half years after his Champions League debut, the Welshman joined a elite group of players who have made 100 appearances in the competition.
The Reds’ no.11 only had fleeting touches early on. The home side was happy to gift United possession, but only in deep-lying areas of the pitch; any ball played into the final third induced a strong challenge from the Lyon centre-backs.
Lyon’s early play was concentrated down the left flank, with full back Fabio Grosso keen to get forward as much as possible. It was Grosso who supplied the cross that almost led to a Lyon opener in the 7th minute. Sidney Govou was first to the ball, but his shot was blocked before Patrice Evra scrambled the loose ball to safety.
The resulting corner saw dangerman Karim Benzema ghost in at the far post but he couldn’t connect cleanly with his volley, which dribbled into Edwin van der Sar’s hands. It was only a half chance, but Sir Alex will have been looking for greater concentration at set pieces, especially given Lyon midfielder Juninho’s ability to deliver balls into dangerous areas.
United’s first real chance fell to Wayne Rooney on 25 minutes. Ryan Giggs flicked a ball through the Lyon defence, which Rooney reached just ahead of Sebastien Squillaci. His touch took him into the box where he was left with only veteran goalkeeper Gregory Coupet to beat. Coupet was equal to the task, saving low at Rooney’s feet.
Benzema then blazed over the bar at the other end before Paul Scholes – the killer ball again provided by Giggs – was denied by a last-ditch block from former Newcastle defender Jean-Alain Boumsong.
Cristiano Ronaldo was upended in the 33rd minute by a challenge that earned Anthony Reveillere a booking, which will see the 28-year-old miss the return leg at Old Trafford. Swede Kim Kallstrom followed his team-mate into referee Luis Medina Cantalejo’s notebook just three minutes later when he brought down the same player in the centre circle.
Owen Hargreaves was the first United player to see a yellow card when he fouled Govou on the edge of the box, a tackle that prompted protestations from Boumsong that were vehement enough to earn the defender a booking of his own.
Despite the cards, the game never threatened to boil over, although Juninho went in late and high on Ryan Giggs just before the interval. It was more mistimed than malicious, however, and gave Ronaldo a chance from out wide to fizz the ball across the penalty area.
Coupet fisted the ball away for a corner, which Giggs took and Ronaldo headed over after out-jumping his man. It was the first half’s last meaningful piece of action and Sir Alex will have been pleased enough with United’s opening 45 minutes. He confirmed as much to Sky Sports just before the second half kicked off, yet reiterated his desire to leave the Stade Gerland with an “all important away goal”.
It wasn’t forthcoming in the early stages of the second period, although the Reds enjoyed almost uninterrupted possession.
And so it was against the run of play that Lyon took the lead in the 54th minute. Benzema picked up the ball on the edge of the box and, despite close attention from three Reds defenders, found space to rattle a low drive in off the post and give Lyon the advantage.
It was a cruel blow for United, who had begun the half so brightly, and a timely reminder of how finely balanced Champions League football can be. The goal triggered a prompt response, as red shirts piled forward in search of an equaliser and Carlos Tevez and Nani stripped off on the touchline.
Ten minutes after Benzema’s strike, United were still a goal down. Tevez came on for Scholes, while Nani replaced Giggs on the left side of midfield as Sir Alex sacrificed experience for energy and enthusiasm.
The two substitutes were at the heart of the move that finally saw Lyon’s net bulge, although Wayne Rooney was correctly flagged offside after Tevez had headed Nani’s cross into the England striker’s path.
United huffed and puffed, but Lyon stood firm despite the Reds’ best efforts. Ronaldo drew a spectacular save from Coupet before substitute Michael Carrick saw a drive bravely blocked just yards off the line.
The French defence did eventually crack, however, and it was Carlos Tevez who found the net with just three minutes to play. Tevez, who’d looked United’s liveliest player since his 65th-minute introduction, was on hand to smash the ball into the roof of the net after Fred failed to clear Nani’s cross at the far post.
The history books will show the teams finished on equal terms, but with the Reds playing the second leg at Old Trafford, the advantage has swung well and truly in United’s favour.
United: van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Anderson, Hargreaves (Carrick 78), Scholes (Tevez 65), Giggs (Nani 65); Rooney
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Saha, O’Shea, Fletcher
Lyon: Coupet; Reveillere, Squillaci, Boumsong, Grosso; Clerc (Ben Arfa 78), Juninho (Bodmer 74), Toulalan, Govou, Kallstrom; Benzema (Fred 83)
Subs not used: Vercoutre, Cris, Delgado, Keita
Booked: Reveillere, Kallstrom, Boumsong