Ian Herbert: The one that got away returns to haunt United
The truth that United cannot defend capably against good sides revisited Old Trafford
Thursday 08 April 2010
Arjen Robben – another of the ones that got away. Sir Alex Ferguson tried to buy him in January 2004, but the Dutchman announced he would be joining Chelsea that summer, having helped Netherlands to the semi-finals of the European Championships. He succumbed to the blandishments of Claudio Ranieri and Peter Kenyon, he said a few years later, because United had reneged on an original deal and because the Chelsea men travelled to Eindhoven to meet him. "It was a nice, personal touch," he once said. A fateful turn of history, on hindsight.
Ferguson stared ahead impassively late last night, when asked had he considered chancing his arm again this summer when Robben wanted out of the Bernabeu. "No, not at all. Just not interested," he said. But this was an occasion for him to reflect on missing links at his club. He has declared in the latest issue of his club's in-house magazine that only minor tweaking will be needed this summer, but there has been abundant evidence to the contrary in the club's wretched past nine days. The suspicion has been there in domestic football all season that United, who will have lost more games than any other Premier League champions since Blackburn 15 years ago if they do pip Chelsea to the title, are not the force they were. The Champions League has only confirmed the fact.
Ferguson was more desperate than anyone knew to take a step beyond last night's encounter. Yes, the use of Wayne Rooney really was the act of a desperate man who had seen with his own eyes against Chelsea four days ago how the force of his side is distilled into one individual now. A statistic can tell many a story but this was the only game United have won this calendar year in which Rooney has failed to score. One extraordinary moment roughly 10 minutes into the match, provided a glimpse of why. Felled by a tackle, Rooney had not clambered to his feet when the ball rebounded in front of him so he tried to plant a head on the ball anyway, virtually from the seat of his pants. The sort of moment which explains the tense chants of "Rooney" which went up as he started hobbling around Old Trafford. The 24-year-old's evening was effectively over by then, another twisted ankle of no use to him, no matter how assiduously he avoided looking back to the United dug-out. His club maintained last night it was coincidence that the right ankle went again. Fabio Capello may view that statement with a little suspicion.
It seemed that the gamble had paid a princely reward when Luis Nani stepped up smartly to crash home the low Antonio Valencia cross which Rooney – at the hub of things even when he is dragging his right leg behind – had dummied, to let it run past him across the box. In just 41 minutes, United had put three goals past Bayern, whose defence is so fragile that Lionel Messi has grounds for believing that his most profitable European night of the season may yet lie ahead of him.
And then, the unvarnished truth that Manchester United cannot defend capably against good sides revisited Old Trafford. United have failed to keep a clean sheet against any of the current top seven teams in the Premier League this season and the manager's most problematic decision revolved around which was the lesser of two evils at right back. Gary Neville, after seven successive games, had looked no match for Franck Ribery in Munich. Rafael da Silva against Ronaldinho in the previous round had looked an even less equitable contest and he had not started a game since lasting only a little more than an hour in a difficult Carling Cup final against Aston Villa.
The 19-year-old's long, disconsolate trudge directly to the tunnel after his dismissal disguised the story of his match: a dangerous lunging tackle in the game's opening seconds; a vanishing act when Thomas Muller's header reached Ivica Olic to slot in Bayern's decisive first goal; two acts of petulance which saw him dismissed. "He's inexperienced, the boy and when you're inexperienced it can show," Ferguson said. Acceptable for a middle ranking Premier League game, maybe, but is a Champions League quarter-final the place to have someone short of know-how?
It is not, and that is a fact Ferguson will surely consider today, along with the thought of what tortures might actually have lain ahead had United limped through the semi-final and on to face Messi and Co in Madrid next month. Ferguson will surely also reflect again on the claim that he does not need to invest – though Robben is not interested if he comes calling. "I'm happy with my career. I don't think I left England too early," he said on the eve of last night's glittering return.
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