When Wayne Rooney broke a metatarsal at the tail end of Manchester United's defeat at Chelsea back in April 2006, it took a moment or two for the injury's significance to sink in. At first, for the watching Blues fans, there was a delightful sense of Schadenfreude: not only were their side winning the title, but their nearest rivals' best player had crocked himself in the process of defeat. What could be more delightful?
Then, as he was carried off the pitch, his boot off, his foot exposed and his face etched with pain, a different feeling began to take hold. This was no longer United's Rooney limping out of action, it was England's. And with the World Cup coming up, that was the nation's chances hobbling off. United's season was already over. Now England's was too.
It was different this time. For the watching anti-United hordes, Rooney's collision with Mario Gomes was the perfect end to a perfect turnaround. Just as United had done in the most celebrated of all meetings between these two clubs, Bayern had won it at the very last, reversing a score which had looked, for the vast majority of the game, enough for victory. To lose Rooney as well as the match was a real bonus for United loathers, especially as it seems, according to Alex Ferguson at least, the injury is not too serious. He should be back playing before long. Certainly before the summer international jamboree.
Not too serious? For United fans it is catastrophic. Rooney is no Theo Walcott, a fragile greyhound, constantly prey to twinge and niggle. He is a musclebound strongman. Unlike his colleague Nani, who spent last night continually going down as if under sniper fire, Rooney does not fake pain. But the way he reacted to his injury time tussle in the centre circle suggested his ankle was really damaged. Enough certainly to ensure his absence from the next two United matches. And if there were any matches for which United fans would want their talisman to be fit and firing it is the next two, the two that could be pivotal to their season.
Even discounting the goals he has scored this term, United have developed a style of play which is absolutely dependent on Rooney. His muscularity, his work rate, his finishing have allowed the manager to field just one striker, thus filling the midfield and overwhelming opponents in the game's engine room. It is true Dimitar Berbatov came into the system last Saturday against Bolton, scored twice and, for someone not renowned for his endeavour, worked his socks off. But, however hard he tried, he is no Rooney. He is a luxury player adding a bit of decoration, not the man building the foundations. With a vibrant Chelsea and a cock-a-hoop Bayern to be faced in the next week, there is no doubt who everyone connected with United would prefer in the side. And that probably includes Berbatov. Suddenly, the playing field has been tilted, the goals shifted, the ground moved. Suddenly, everything is more open.
Mind, not even Rooney could alter the result last night. The best of players need service. And one brilliant cross from Darren Fletcher apart, which the United number 10 hit straight at Bayern's keeper, there was not much forthcoming from the visiting midfield to assist their great asset. Fletcher, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Park Ji Sung were pushed far too deep by their German opponents to be able effectively to create. For United fans it was a painful evening, waiting for the inevitable finally to arrive (aided and abetted by a couple of woeful errors by their fullbacks). Actually it felt like watching England under Sven, with his belief in scoring the early goal then clinging on for the rest of the game, a tactic that almost always failed. No wonder Ferguson insisted at half-time that the goal had come too early: he has never been much of a fan of the Sven approach.
As the game progressed, and United became less effective, tactically, for once, the Scot seemed uncertain. Bringing Berbatov and Valencia on was a bold effort to reverse things, put United back on the front foot, defend in the way he prefers, through attack. But it failed.
Thus United enter their most important spell of the season on the back of their least effective performance since Christmas and with their fulcrum likely to be missing. That's the glory of football, how quickly certainty can dissipate. If ever there was a time for the others in the United side to prove that theirs is not a one-man team as many are suggesting, this is surely it.
- Wayne Rooney