MANCHESTER, April 8 – Sir Alex Ferguson has challenged Manchester United to keep their Champions League title defence alive by becoming the first English team to win in Porto.
Ferguson’s holders face an uphill struggle to reach the semi-finals after being held to a 2-2 draw by the Portuguese champions in Tuesday’s last eight first leg clash at Old Trafford.
Porto’s two away goals mean United need to win or earn an unlikely high-scoring draw at the Dragao Stadium next Wednesday to stay in the competition.
Ferguson admits it is a daunting prospect, especially given the woeful record of Premier League teams in Porto.
Arsenal lost 2-0 at the Dragao this season, while United have failed to return from Porto with a win twice under Ferguson and Liverpool and Chelsea have also been frustrated there.
"It’s a difficult job now because no British team has won in Porto," Ferguson said. "We have to win the game. We’ve been good at firsts at this club so this is an occasion when we can be first again. We have a job to do."
It could have been even worse for United after the Premier League leaders produced a lacklustre display that saw them out-played for long periods.
Cristian Rodriguez had stunned Old Trafford when he took advantage of a mistake by Jonny Evans to drive home a fine low strike in the fourth minute.
Only a calamitous mistake by Porto defender Bruno Alves gave United a lifeline when his wayward backpass was finished by Wayne Rooney in the 15th minute.
United were close to snatching an undeserved victory after Carlos Tevez struck with a close range finish from Rooney’s deft flick in the 85th minute, but Porto substitute Mariano punished John O’Shea’s weak header to equalise in the 89th minute.
Ferguson admitted United have only themselves to blame for their predicament after another careless display scarred by defensive errors.
After setting a record for consecutive cleansheets earlier this season, United have conceded 10 goals in four games and suddenly look vulnerable at the back. Porto exposed them time and again and could have killed the tie off with better finishing.
"We kept giving the ball away, we were nervous and it took half an hour to get going. But Porto were always a threat and they never stopped counter-attacking with numbers," Ferguson said.
"The second goal was one we couldn’t afford to lose. When you are 2-1 up you have to see the game out. Given the importance of the game it was a terrible goal to lose. We only have ourselves to blame. We can’t say it was a great goal."
"It just emphasises the fragile nature of our defence at the moment. We showed tiredness because we played against Aston Villa on Sunday. It wasn’t the best preparation for a European tie lets be honest."
Ferguson hopes Evans will be back from his groin injury within a week, but he is far from certain to feature in Portugal.
And with Rio Ferdinand expected to miss Saturday’s trip to Sunderland with the groin injury that kept him out against Porto, United are beginning to show signs of wear and tear at just the wrong moment.
Porto manager Jesualdo Ferreira stopped short of doing a Jose Mourinho style jig of delight when Mariano scored his late equaliser. But Ferreira knows his side are on the verge of emulating the success of Porto’s Mourinho vintage, who knocked United out of Europe in 2004.
Their smooth passing and quick counter-attacks kept United on the back foot and Ferreira will try to convince his players they can do even better in the return.
"The result is good but nothing is sorted out yet. It is not worth much yet," he said. "It is just a score that means we can go to the Dragao and compete with them.
"We have to convince the players they can do even better in the second leg.
"We know that United will play in a different style. We know how powerful they are and now they have to win."