Absent Rooney casts shadow over United

Subdued performance against limited opposition leaves crowd showing sympathy for Ferguson
  • @stevetongue

When, if ever, did Manchester United last play a European Cup tie so overshadowed by anyone not taking part? Surely not for more than half a century, since the patchwork squares from the squad decimated on Munich's slushy runway were stitched together three months later for a heroic victory against the might of Milan.

Remembrance of those things past, and passed away, should prevent any use of words like "tragedy" in the context of a footballer wanting to change clubs, yet it was possible to feel the sadness evident in Sir Alex Ferguson's Tuesday afternoon's statement on the future of Wayne Rooney seeping from the Old Trafford crowd last night.

The ankle injury sustained in training earlier that day prevented Rooney taking the pitch at any stage last night, when the reception would have been revealing. Staying away rather than hobbling to a seat in the stand denied 70,000 United regulars their opportunity to take part in a vocal straw poll.

It was the Bursaspor supporters, midway through the first half, who broke into a mischievous chant of "Roo-ney, Roo-ney". Ferguson, in contrast, came out to face the cameras and the crowd on his regular 50-yard march from tunnel to dugout; and was it just imagination or did those seated behind him offer even warmer applause than normal in some combination of sympathy and support?

They had by then heard the arguments from both sides: the manager's in his dramatic media statement expressing bemusement and Rooney's response, less than three hours before kick-off last night, not once mentioning money and cannily playing the one card that could win him some sympathy from the paying punters: namely, United's lack of investment in proven talent, for which he did not need to blame the hugely unpopular American owners. That is now taken as a given among the green-and-gold hordes. Yet of the couple of relevant banners on show, one asked spikily: "Who's the whore now, Rooney?", while another read, "Coleen forgave you – but we won't."

Otherwise the crowd were muted, aware that there were bigger issues in the air and rousing themselves only for an occasional anti-Glazer chant. The game? As with yesterday's previews, it was difficult to shake off the impression of a sideshow. To become an occasion in its own right, the evening needed either opposition of far greater glamour and accomplishment than Turkey's Bursaspor, striving for their first point or even goal in the competition, or a complete power failure on United's part.

The three main signings this summer – while the other lot down the road were spending £200m – were all present: Chris Smalling standing in for England's captain Rio Ferdinand and, among the substitutes, Javier Hernandez and the little-known Bebe.

Either bravely or recklessly, Ferguson put his trust in Federico Macheda as the lone striker, but found only confirmation as suggested from a recent game at Sunderland that the young man has not come on as would have been hoped since his stunning goalscoring introduction against Aston Villa two seasons back. He is no Rooney; but then, who is? That is United's unwelcome new dilemma.