Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Manchester (and England) Wait with Baited Breath

If there was a piece of injury news that could completely overshadow Bayern turning the tables on Manchester United with a late injury time winner, it was the one piece of news a city and nation feared most. Wayne Rooney, injured.

Part of a double blow, Rooney awkwardly injured his ankle while the ball was taken in the other direction, eventually leading to the game winning goal after Ivica Olic ghosted behind Patrice Evra to steal the ball and slot home.  As Olic and the Münchner celebrated wildly, Rooney had to be carried off the field, unable to put any pressure on his foot.

Let's get the game out of the way.  Bayern were better and deserved to win.  Even with key midfielders Arjen Robben and Bastien Schweinsteiger out injured, Bayern controlled the play and probably should have scored more but for some great saves by Edwin van der Saar and some bad misses by the German side.  Man U also threatened on the break, and leaving the Allianz Arena down 2-1 with an away goal in the pocket is nothing to be ashamed of.

The manner of the loss will certainly hurt for the Mancunians. Ribery's goal took a wicked deflection off Rooney, though the key of play was Bayern's man in the middle of the wall.  Most people are focusing on the bad luck suffered by Rooney on the play, but it showed why attacking teams try to put players in the wall (or at the end of it at least).  The Bayern player peeled out, allowing enough space for the ball to squeeze past the Man U bodies and hit Rooney's legs behind him as he jumped and turned.  Without the Bayern man there, maybe there's another Man U player in his spot or Rooney is tighter and the shot never gets through or the block is more solid and the ball goes wide.

When plays like that go in your favor, maybe the football gods are smiling upon you.

If more evidence of said favor was needed, the final play sealed the deal.  Nemanja Vidic did well to tackle Gomez, bringing him down while the ball bounced ahead toward Evra, who was running back to goal at an angle to cut off Gomez's run.  As anyone who's been caught like that by a unsuspecting deflected ball, when you weren't prepared, knows it isn't so easy to deal with. Furthermore, the deflection off Vidic played the ball slightly behind Evra, so he was immediately put in a bad position.  But he was still lackadaisical in trying to stop his momentum and either control the ball safely or clear it, and unaware of Olic's position, the Bayern attacker stole in easily and finished calmly past van der Saar.

Back to the big news, Rooney's injury.  So far reports indicate a layoff of about 2-4 weeks.  Surely enough time to heal for the World Cup but devastating for Man U's season, what with the top of the table clash against Chelsea this weekend and the return match against Bayern next.  Even if it's not bad, surely every step and tackle will be closely watched by the England faithful.  Could Rooney be on the verge of being overworked and burnt out? A twisted ankle is very susceptible to re-injury if not properly healed and strengthened 100%, so how he's used by Sir Alex upon his return will have Fabio Capello up nights.

Man U will claim they can still win without Rooney, as evidenced by their weekend victory over Bolton.  But let's get real, the Wanderers and Chelsea are two entirely difference propositions.  I have my doubts.

From a broader view, the match showed that Man U are overly reliant on Rooney and lack a superior attacking presence in the center of midfield.  I'm as big an admirer of Darren Fletcher as there can be, but the Red Devils need to add some attacking flair to support his all-around industry.  The results have proven how invaluable Fletcher is to the Man U cause, particularly by looking at those big matches when he's been unavailable.  But the aging Paul Scholes (or Giggs when played there), the passive Michael Carrick, or the disappointing youngster Anderson are not going to cut it when it comes to teams with superior midfield possession and attacking instincts.  They've performed up to the task on many an occasion, but not consistently and dominant enough when against the big teams, and one senses that is where Man U falls short.

With Rooney potentially sidelined for a key stretch of the season, Man U's lack of striking options will also be tested.  Berbatov is not a prolific scorer, and one laughs at the thought of going into the season relying on Michael Owen to stay fit and contribute as the third striker (though will anyone say the free signing wasn't worth it for his last gasp winner in the Manchester Derby alone?  I think not).  Meanwhile, the stable of youngsters waiting in the wings have yet to step up and hold down a first team place.

Then again, Man U is not the only team overly reliant on Wayne Rooney, and you can make that two countries that will be waiting intently for injury updates on the golden ankle.

1 comment:

  1. I did wonder myself what might happen to Man Utd's form if Rooney got injured. I still think they have enough about them to win the league but it is going to be difficult, for me Man Utd all season has relied heavily on individuals be it Rooney or someone else from game to game whereas Chelsea has looked more like a team unit. But really all the top sides this season have had their moments of inconsistencies, its hard to predict who is going to be able to go on a steady run

    As for Fletcher, I had my doubts a couple of seasons ago whether he was ever going to be anything more than a bit part player at Man Utd brought in for certain games and then dropped for others but this season he has really come into his own. He has really made sure that he is probably one of the first names on Fergusan's team sheet while others who moved to the club on big money have been in and out of the side all season.

    PS. Like the new look to the blog. Looks cleaner in my book.