The stage was set for a certain Wayne Rooney to give it his all and prove to be the difference in the first of the two legs of the quarter finals of the Champion’s League on Wednesday night.
After a couple of days that saw Rooney face the prospect of a ban for his swearing at the weekend and with everyone adding their opinion on it, combined with his loss of his sponsorship with Coca Cola, everything seemed in place to let his football do the talking at a ground that has not been the best for United of late.
With a line up that saw a few surprises, most notably Nani being left on the bench and the boost to the defensive line up with the return of Rio Ferdinand, United fans would probably have been cautiously optimistic regarding the prospects of a victory. And after a tense tie, that saw United control large parts of the game, the first leg was decided by a first half goal from Rooney, giving United an away goal advantage to take back to Old Trafford. As such, here are five things that may be taken away from the game.
1) Rooney’s form is perfect timing
Forgetting the controversy regarding the swearing incident at Upton Park, one must admit that Rooney’s last couple of performances have been nothing short of superb. His hat trick at West Ham will have sent his confidence soaring, and it seems that all the backlash from an incident that has somehow overshadowed his performance meant he was only even more fired up to prove a point. From start to finish he played with a positive attitude, getting involved and generally making his presence felt as well as looking more like the Wayne Rooney pre-Bayern injury last season.
He linked up well with Hernandez, looking like an effective partnership that compliment each other extremely well. His performance was rewarded with a goal in the 24th minute when Ryan Giggs controlled Michael Carrick’s long pass beautifully out wide on the left, before passing swiftly to Rooney to coolly finish and to give United a deserved advantage. Luckily, his celebration was a little more conventional as well.
2) Park was an inclusion that paid off
Many will have been surprised to find Park included ahead of Nani on the left hand side, to partner Valencia. This was probably representative of the attitude Sir Alex Ferguson takes towards such big games. Preferring the protection that Park often offers on the left allows for a more cautious approach to the game that the more attack minded Nani would normally offer.
In fact, Park has always been a highly valued option as a “big game” player and his choice was rewarded with a performance that was workman-like and effective, displaying the attitude that United fans are well acquainted with, displaying great levels of stamina, particularly when one considers he had only recently recovered from from injury.
3) Michael Carrick provided evidence to support his new contract
For all the criticism that Carrick has faced this season from United fans (including myself), one could not argue with the fact that he gave one of his finest performances of the season on Wednesday night. Controlling the midfield, his passing was accurate and combined with Park, was the engine room of the United midfield, box to box he gave his all on a big night when it mattered most.
Simply put, he bossed the midfield, which allowed United to be far more assured during the game and as a result allowed for better control that restricted Chelsea going forward at times. Although the threat Chelsea posed was perhaps greater than United at times, it is fair to say that United were far more assured in possession and looked far more complete as a unit than their London counterparts.
Considering United’s defence had been decimated by injury and suspension of late, it was a great relief to see Ferdinand included in the starting line up, particularly as there had been worries that he would be missing the majority, if not all of the business end of the season.
Indeed, the back four looked shaky at times, particularly down the left with Evra looked exposed at times during the first half where Chelsea seemed to concentrate most of their attack. And although the changes that Chelsea made meant United had to cope with a greater threat in the second half, the pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand will have helped in adding a self assured calm to the back line that may have been missing had the inexperienced (although extremely impressive) Chris Smalling played.
5) Is Berbatov considered more of a luxury?
One word that may best describe Javier Hernandez this season is clinical. Whenever called upon he has been a hassle to defences across the country, adding energy in a refreshing manner during a season that has surpassed all expectations. And with that it has meant that Dimitar Berbatov has been pushed back to the bench of late. At first it may have been put down to resting, but the inclusion of Hernandez with Rooney instead of the classy Bulgarian has become ever more common. Not that Berbatov has been poor when called upon, he has often added class and provided another useful form of attack when needed, particularly in his passing and attempts at creativity.
However, the way that “Little Pea” and Rooney have worked together has clearly provided a selection headache for Ferguson that has left it even more difficult to leave either out. Perhaps Hernandez is considered a more likely option to score, becoming a nuisance in the opposition box looking to “poach” goals that Berbatov may not provide. Quite what this means for Berbatov in future is unclear, particularly if Hernandez continues to impress.
Final note: Van Der Sar, Valencia and Penalties
Edwin Van Der Sar once again provided yet more reasons for United fans to try to convince him to reconsider his decision, pulling out top drawer saves that would otherwise have gone in had another goalkeeper been between the posts. Displaying great levels of athleticism that defy what is expected for someone in the twilight of their career, he puts other far younger ‘keepers to shame.
Ever reliable when called upon for standard procedures he then has the capability to pull of the spectacular, on this occasion clawing away fully outstretched from Fernando Torres’ header in the 75th minute. He was harshly booked for time wasting when he was unable to take his goal kick, but that will not take away the gloss from another faultless performance. And on the point of Antonio Valencia, finding himself impressing since coming back from injury, I think a point should be made of his placement at right back when Rafael had to go off. Able to restrict himself going forward too much he provided adequate cover at right back that added to the cause in preventing Chelsea scoring an equaliser.
A small point, but a relevant one nonetheless. Finally, one must admit that United were fortunate not to concede a penalty in the closing stages of the game. Evra looked to have fouled Ramires but was not spotted by the referee and once again brought the extra official’s role into question. However, most United fans will agree it was time United had a bit of luck regarding events at Stamford Bridge, and with Torres’ desperate diving attempts in both halves, United will have felt they got the luck they deserved on the night.
So, United go back to Old Trafford with a victory and that all important away goal. Along the way there were plenty of close shaves, such as Evra’s clearance off the line as well as a penalty appeal that could have easily been given. But fans will happily take a 1-0 lead back to Manchester that puts United at a strong position to progress to the semi finals. Sir Alex Ferguson will be sure to keep complacency out of his squad, with a job he will feel is only half done as yet.