James Lawton: Ribéry's drive leaves United breathless
The fact Rooney failed to complete the destructive process is a timely warning
Wednesday 31 March 2010
He just about eviscerated Milan and last night he seemed to be lining up Bayern Munich for another ritual dissection. But if Wayne Rooney cannot stop scoring goals he is not yet the master of every situation.
He is also some way from superhuman, a reality that could not have been more jarring when it was accompanied by a late and disturbing injury which brought memories of the problems which so blighted his efforts in the last World Cup in Germany.
That worry was even more devastating than United's defeat, but while medical verdicts were awaited, with the first ones coming in more encouragingly than was first feared, there was another one which also ran deep.
It said that though Rooney may be in imperious form, he is not yet infallible and for United this meant they had to make some dramatic adjustments. These simply did not run deeply enough as Bayern found a vein of form which gradually, but remorselessly, gave them control of this first leg.
This was maybe a timely warning for both Manchester United and England as Rooney failed to complete the destructive process he seemed to be immersed in once again when he scored early in the second minute.
When he did that, volleying home Nani free's kick after a small but deadly change of direction had sent Martin Demichelis, Bayern's distraught, makeshift central defender, tumbling to the turf, the sense that United were again in unstoppable mode was overwhelming.
That was a presumption, though, which put too much faith in both an indomitable Rooney – now 34 goals to the good this season – and United's growing sense that they are once again a team of destiny.
The trouble was that Bayern were not Milan, a team creaking with age and a shortfall in tactical coherence, but a side who perhaps have a future more in keeping with a past that brought four European Cup victories and an enduring sense that they were the victims of one of football's most outrageous results when United beat them so melodramatically in Barcelona 11 years ago.
Rooney might have choked the life out of this idea but he snatched at another superb opportunity soon after his potentially devastating breakthrough. Then, to complicate United's evening still more profoundly, Franck Ribéry began to play.
Not, United captain Gary Neville learned quickly, as someone groping back from injury but as a player of the toughest instincts and most insistent ambition who could also go past a full back as though he didn't exist. Ribéry inflicted this diminishing experience on Neville with a quite brilliant touch, and crossed perfectly, but it was an opportunity that slipped away. A few minutes later Ribéry again cut United open with stunning facility, but again Edwin van der Saar was spared the need for a desperate save.
United might have hoped they had survived a crisis when they reached half-time still with a goal advantage, but it was the kind of assumption from which they separated their opponents so savagely in Barcelona all those years ago. The free kick from Ribéry which drew Bayern level was heavy with good fortune but it was no more than was deserved by a team that had been reshaped so brilliantly by Dutch master coach Luis van Gaal. The winner was beautifully taken by Ivica Olic, which meant United are now fighting for survival at Old Trafford rather than marching on with an increasingly imperious step.
They have nothing to complain about but their own failures to produce the best of themselves. Sir Alex Ferguson was plainly agitated by the lack of assurance which followed Rooney's first dramatic impact and United's growing unease in the race of Bayern's sharply rising poise.
From United there was just none of that competitive edge which has become a part of their personality in recent weeks. They had the great stadium stunned into a biting re-assessment of the belief that Bayern are once again a team to inflict themselves at the highest level of the European game. They had every incentive to produce another statement about their confidence in reaching a third straight European Cup final.
But that seemed so much propaganda as Ribéry got on the ball and reminded Ferguson why he had been quite so keen to sign him — and Bayern found the rhythm which stretched every corner of United's defence. Evra, one of the less celebrated of United's vital performers this season, became so rattled that he gave up the ball to Olic in that moment when United were finally persuaded that their road to glory has encountered a rather formidable road block.
It was a huge relief that Rooney had probably escaped serious injury when he fell to the pitch in obvious pain. Less,re-assuring though was the reminder that he may yet not be officially a demi-god.
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