Yes, that’s right, Paris; opponents LOSC Lille Métropole‘s stadium needs upgrading so tonight they call the Stade de France home. The giant stadium at St-Denis near Paris played host to the 1998 FIFA World Cup final and will also play host to this season’s Champions League Final on July 13th next year.
Paul Scholes was sent off in the corresponding fixture a fortnight ago so misses the game along with the continuing long list of injury victims Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Gabriel Heinze, Gary Neville, Quinton Fortune, Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
United line up with a cautious 4-5-1 with Edwin van der Sar looking nervous in goal; another new back four of of club captain Roy Keane favourites John O’Shea and Rio Ferdinand with fit again Wes Brown easing Mikael Silvestre out to left back. The five chosen to establish some degree of midfield control are Cristiano Ronaldo and Kieran Richardson down the wings with Fletcher and Smith as the holding men behind Wayne Rooney, back from his ban, and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who will captain Manchester United for the first time.
Lille, who lie sixth in the French league, are still without injured captain Stephane Dumont but otherwise have a full squad to choose from and are playing a more positive 4-4-2. Lille coach Claude Puel has opted for stability in his team selection, keeping faith with ten of the players who drew against Olympique de Marseille at the weekend.
United get the match started in the pouring Parisian rain, knowing only a victory will do against a team that have yet to score in the group stage but it’s Lille that make the first tentative attacking moves, albeit to no avail.
Twenty minutes in and United are really struggling to get through a very comfortable looking home defence whilst Lille just look happy to counter so it’s all dancing but precious little singing in the packed arena. There’s so little ambition on display here Donald Trump would sack the lot of them.
Suddenly, out of nowhere in this sodden snoozefest, a sharp forward run in the 38th minute by Lille left back Gregory Tafforeau catches the Reds’ defence sleeping and a pass across the park is met by Slovenian striker Milenko Acimovic and, with no sign of opposition, he has all the time in the world to slam the ball into the roof of the net and it’s the first European GOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLL this season for Lille who lead 1-0.
The French team have already proven their deep defensive skills and that’s all we see for the rest of the first half. United are clearly bewildered and don’t seem to have any idea beyond sheer persistence as to how to crack the code and the German referee Markus Merk brings a depressing first half to a soggy end.
Fifteen minutes later Lille get the second half started, knowing that another unlikely defeat of the increasingly shambolic Manchester United is on the cards. Amazingly though, it is the home side that goes on the offensive, the half time break only seems to have given United more time to rot, so poorly are they playing.
The most positive thing Sir Alex comes up with is to replace the largely ineffective Richardson with the bustle of the Korean midfielder Ji-sung Park but even his energy fails to lift the team. Little Lille are playing out of their skins, creating more chances and, in the 70th minute have the best chance of the match yet, but somehow striker Matt Moussilou sends a free header over the bar.
There’s precious little else to report; Lille had a couple more half chances whereas United only produced two shots on goal in the whole match, a sad statistic that reveals the truly devastatingly poor grasp of football basics on display by Manchester United these days.
Mercifully the referee only adds two minutes of injury time and the suffering is over, leaving Lille delighted with their famous victory and the once mighty United as flat and ragged as a burst balloon, in serious danger of failing to even qualify out of the group stages again.