It’s open to debate whether Manchester United would have done enough today to beat back Bayern Munich and advance to the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League without Wayne Rooney.
The second-best player on the planet (I hope I don’t have to explain who is first) and his well-known injury issues could have been left out of the squad entirely and United probably would have made a good go of it.
Course, we’ll never know. In reality, Rooney not only appeared but started – a move that seemed to me to be a gamble by manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The bet? Put Rooney on the field, try to keep the attack at full RPMs for as long as necessary to build a significant lead, then get Rooney out of there and hold the hell on.
The first part came together fine, as United popped off a 3-0 lead on goals by Darron Gibson and two from Nani. But the second part went haywire thanks in large part to the sending off of Rafael for a second bookable offense. United’s 3-2 win left them level, 4-4, for the tie, but Munich’s 2-1 edge on away goals advances them to the semifinals.
If Rooney is now going to be unavailable for most/all of the Premier League run-in, potentially costing United a fourth straight Premier League crown, then I guess you can question today’s decision.
Even as a United fan, I’m not one of those that believes SAF isn’t capable of making mistakes. But deep down, I can’t fault him for today’s decision. Clearly, Rooney wasn’t 100%. He wasn’t going to pot three goals inside of 42 minutes (yeah, like that ever happens ). But he didn’t need to do that for the strategy to be a sound one. He simply needed to take up space and be a threat, thereby opening lanes and chances for teammates.
And at 3-0, there certainly was no reason to think things were going to go south as they ended up. Rooney came off early in the second half, perhaps even playing a bit too long. But I don’t think you can point to his departure as the reason United gave in. Rafael’s sending off minutes earlier was a far bigger factor, as was the great work of Arjen Robben – who seems to finally have learned what a great player he can be when he doesn’t fall over. As for Rafael, there have been times where he has shown glimpses of being ready for such a primetime stage – but today wasn’t his day.
And in the end, it wasn’t United’s day. A tough few days at Old Trafford have seen United fall to Chelsea in a possible title decider, then be eliminated from the Champions League despite besting Bayern Munich on the evening. I felt for much of the season that SAF was pointing more toward the Champions League this term than domestic honors – especially after his club’s performance in last year’s final vs. deserved champions Barcelona.
That goal now abolished, SAF faces one more test in what seems like a never-ending career exam, which is to get this group refocused on finding some way to catch Chelsea for the Premier League crown. In the driver’s seat a week ago for just that, United now face an uphill battle.
How much of a role Rooney is going to play in that battle remains to be seen. But even if today’s run out ended up doing more than harm than good, it seemed to me to be the right decision. You can only play to win the game you play today – but you can lose more than one by coaching for a game later in the schedule.
In reality, over the two matches, Munich were better at critical times and they deserve to move on. All credit to them.
Only time will tell what today’s gamble will end up costing Ferguson and his club.