United’s European heartbreak still provides bright spots

Manchester United’s loss to Real Madrid is without doubt one of their most painful in their recent history. In terms of feeling an injustice after a result, it’ll rank up there with the Champions League exit to Porto in 2004 and the Premier League title decider loss to Chelsea in 2010. Amongst all the doom, gloom and incompetent ref-bashing though, there are things to look at from a positive light.

For the first six months of the season, United were damned with faint praise, sometimes less. Phrases such as “average team dominating an average league” and “worst United side in years” were constantly bandied about.

This was unfair, because in all honesty, people are comparing a developing, transitional United team to the fully developed teams of 1999 and 2008. Surely a more accurate measure is to compare them to another transitional side, for example the United team of 2004-2006? That team was barely competing for the title let alone winning it, yet they ended up becoming one of the greatest sides in club history – so how good could this crop potentially be in a couple of years?

The performances against Real Madrid show that there’s certainly a lot to be positive about.


Injustice: Sir Alex Ferguson will still be raging but has a lot to be proud of. All rights to this image belong to Tom Jenkins and The Guardian.

For a start, Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactics over the 2 legs were absolutely spot on. In fact, his tactics, so often criticised last season, have been excellent over the last few months (this is borne out by United’s terrific record in the big domestic games so far this season.)

Bar a shaky opening 45 minutes at the Bernabeu, his side looked cool and intelligent. They smothered Real Madrid, defended with a plan and were dangerous on the break. Even with 10 men, they had Real on the ropes for the final 15 minutes. Jose Mourinho’s claim that the best side lost was quite clearly an attempt to curry favour with the United hierarchy – but it was also very true.

If this tie had been 12 months ago, Madrid would probably have romped to victory. As it was, they edged through, aided by a pretty ridiculous refereeing decision. If these two sides were to meet in another 12 months, you’d think a United side with an extra year’s experience under their belt would be even more of a threat.

Bear in mind that David De Gea, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck had never played a Champions League knockout tie before last month. Jonny Evans had only played a handful. Yet all of these players sparkled at some point over the two legs. Welbeck in particular was magnificent, while Rafael played Ronaldo in the second leg as well as anyone could. Clearly there is a lot of potential for the years to come.


Coming of age: Danny Welbeck has won rave reviews for his displays in both matches.

In the immediate future, a first domestic double since 1996 is still a possibility, as well as the opportunity to gain a record points total in the Premier League era. The players will need lifting but motivation has always been one of Sir Alex’s strong points.

United used the heartbreak of last season’s title loss to spur themselves on this year. As Gary Neville has recently said, they have their “title heads on” and seem like they are determined to wrestle their crown back from Manchester City. Something similar could be on the cards from a European perspective. The rage and hurt they are currently feeling is exactly what Sir Alex will be telling them to remember next season.


Wayne Rooney’s Injury: Temporary Pain Relief for Sir Alex’s Headache?

It goes without saying that the loss of one of your star players, a man who scored 35 goals last season and is currently the club’s 4th highest goalscorer of all time, should be a cause rather than a cure for managerial headache. But when Sir Alex Ferguson analyses the situation, he may feel differently.

It was already well documented before Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Fulham on Saturday, that Wayne Rooney’s opening game performance at Everton was disappointing (although the same could be said for many of his team mates). Indeed, his manager’s decision to bench him for the Cottagers’ visit was seen by many as a necessary kick up the backside. For a long time, Rooney seemed to have near undroppable status. Bouts of poor form and even on pitch strops at team mates, which seem to have surfaced in the last 2 years, went without significant punishment. Now, this may not be the case.

Things to ponder? Wayne Rooney is stretchered off against Fulham. All rights to this image are reserved by Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images.

Rooney’s two preferred positions are as the Number 9 or the Number 10. Goalscorer or playmaker. The reason for his undroppable status was that he was by far the best option in either position. Summer acquisitions have changed this. Robin Van Persie, the only player in the Premier League to score more than Rooney last season, is at the very least his equal as a Number 9. Shinji Kagawa, last season’s Bundesliga Player Of The Year, offers a far more fluid and skilful option as a Number 10. Both have had excellent starts to their United careers and this is the reason for Sir Alex’s headache.

It seems folly to change a winning and attractive combination, but so is leaving out a player of Rooney’s calibre and experience. He could of course be moved into a wide forward position (i.e. David Villa), but United have a plethora of wing options already. Increased competition is a good thing, but it depends on how well the resources can be handled (particularly when one of them happens to be an A-lister). The emergence of Javier Hernandez in 2010/11 would surely have motivated Dimitar Berbatov, but it didn’t make a blind bit of difference as the Mexican’s form and ability to increase his team’s cohesion meant he regularly kept his place. Hernandez then went through the same thing himself last year due to the emergence of Danny Welbeck. Generally speaking, there will always be 2 forwards who play the bulk of the games. People like to point out that the Treble winning side of 1999 had 4 forwards who didn’t mind rotation (although there was still a clear first choice of Yorke and Cole) but that was a very different situation. Teddy Sheringham was 33, whilst Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had the rare personality of somebody who was happy to play Supersub despite his considerable talent. You wouldn’t say that about Rooney, Van Persie or Kagawa would you?

Flying start for the Dutchman: Van Persie opens his United account.

Some United fans have bemoaned the loss of the raging bull Rooney, who could turn a match in an instant and terrorise opposing defences with pace, power and skill. He seems to have gone from somebody who drew comparisons with Gazza and George Best, to somebody who’s “just” effective. I say that in inverted commas because we shouldn’t devalue what he currently is. He’s become one of the world’s top centre forwards. His goal record over the last 2 years for United stands at an extremely impressive 51 in 86, and the majority of managers in the game would snap him up in an instant if they could. However, there is the nagging sense of regret that he could, and maybe still can be, so much more. Whilst his finishing has improved immensely, his all round game has deteriorated over the last year. How often does somebody score 35 goals and still not get voted as his club’s player of the season? That says as much about him as it does for the actual winner, with all due respect to the brilliant Antonio Valencia.

Rooney’s nasty looking gash is expected to keep him out for around a month, which is undoubtedly robbing both club and country of a world-class option. But had he not suffered the injury, that may have been all he was at Old Trafford for a while – an option. His lay-off temporarily eases the selection dilemna for his manager. Of course, loss of form/injuries to other players are all perfectly likely, which means he could get back in the team and keep himself there with good performances. However, should Van Persie and Kagawa continue to flourish in his absence, his return will bring back this unfamiliar headache for his manager.