Ferguson convinced Rooney's big week will begin brightly
Wednesday 07 December 2011
Traditionally, Switzerland is where you go when you seek refuge, whether from tax or war. However, from the moment Wayne Rooney arrived in the country to the moment he leaves, the spotlight will be fierce and unforgiving.
In a perfect world he will lead Manchester United into the knockout phase of the Champions League here tonight and then travel to Nyon and persuade Uefa's disciplinary commission to reduce the ban that would see him miss England's first three matches in next year's European Championship – a competition in which three games are often all that England get.
Most seasons, Rooney would not reckon to play in Manchester United's final group game, a match that is usually the chance for those confined to walk-on parts to take centre-stage. Two years ago, Michael Owen scored three times in Wolfsburg, as a side that featured Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in central defence humbled the German champions on their own pitch.
This time, injury has meant that Owen and Dimitar Berbatov are not options for Sir Alex Ferguson and, even if they were, United's situation in the Champions League is sufficiently serious that they would not have been considered. Unless Otelul Galati, who have been subject to the kind of treatment reserved for Walter the Softy in Dennis the Menace, can conjure something against Benfica in Lisbon, United will not be finishing in the first place that would see them avoid the competition's big beasts. They need a point to go through and, if they are not down to the bare bones – to quote Harry Redknapp's favourite phrase – there are enough injuries to leave plenty of exposed flesh.
In the wake of the three-match ban for his witless tackle on Montenegro's Miodrag Dzudovic, Rooney was spared the ordeal that comes with playing at Liverpool, Ferguson saying the punishment had "devastated" him. Last night, his manager was far more sanguine. "It is a different day," he said. "This is a big game, an important game, I don't think this will come into it at all."
Under normal circumstances, United, who have lost one away game in the Champions League since being overwhelmed by Milan in the 2007 semi-final second leg in San Siro, would not concern themselves unduly about securing the draw that would see them through to the competition's business phase.
But these are not normal times. Only twice have United failed to clear their group. In 1994, their sin was naivety, relentlessly exposed not just by Romario in the Nou Camp but by Gothenburg. Eleven years later, they were desperately ordinary, mired in the Glazer takeover, a succession of unimpressive signings and hamstrung by the loss of Rooney who was sent off in the first game.
Here, Ferguson thought the crime had been complacency, especially against Basle at Old Trafford, that had brought his side, if not to the brink, then to being very aware of the edge. In September, a two-goal lead had somehow been squandered and, but for Ashley Young's desperately late equaliser, United would need a win tonight.
There was a little gasp in St Jakob-Park's crowded press room when Ferguson was asked if he had got his tactics wrong that night. "There was nothing wrong with the tactics," he retorted. "It was the complacency that undermined us; we could have had four or five but we showed a lack of discipline that cost us two points. That equaliser [from Young] has rescued us."
Ferguson argued that it was wrong to suggest his team had not performed well in the Champions League. They had held Benfica at the Estadio da Luz, should have beaten them comfortably at Old Trafford and, for what it was worth, they had beaten Galati. "I don't see how you can say we haven't played well," he remarked. "We are second in the Premier League you know."
Switzerland is not thought of a passionate country, especially when it comes to football, but this is a game that is being billed as "The Match of the Year". The last of St Jakob-Park's 36,000 tickets were long ago sold and the vast majority will go in the hope of seeing one of Swiss football's most remarkable nights.
Over the border in Germany, they still talk of the "Miracle of Bern" when the 1954 World Cup final was snatched from a Hungarian side that had hammered eight past West Germany in the group stages.
"Yes, it would take a miracle to see us through," said Alexander Frei, who had scored twice in the September chaos at Old Trafford. "For us to have got eight points in this group is already unbelievable. For us this is a match that will decide whether we have a good Christmas or an astonishing one."
Xherdan Shaqiri v Patrice Evra
Shaqiri scored in Basle's surprise 3-3 draw at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign. The 20-year-old winger has pace and flair, and is attracting significant interest from several of Europe's top clubs. Evra has played in many of these crucial Champions League nights for United, but is not in the best form of his career and the spritely Shaqiri could cause problems for the Frenchman this evening.
Alexander Frei v Rio Ferdinand
Frei netted twice in the reverse fixture back in September and the 32-year-old tops the Swiss Super League scoring charts. Ferdinand is not the defender he once was: if he can anticipate Frei's movement he can have a good evening, but the former England captain is no longer the stalwart defensive presence he used to be.
Aleksandar Dragovic v Wayne Rooney
The 20-year-old Austria international could have a very difficult evening ahead, especially if Rooney drops back towards midfield, demanding Dragovic decide whether to follow him or not.
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