Nick Townsend: Talisman pays price of commitment

Eriksson haunted again by injury that compromised a nation's hopes in Euro 2004
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The Independent Football

On such an afternoon of raucous partying by the hosts, Wayne Rooney departing the stadium on crutches cut a grimly incongruous spectacle. It looked ominous enough when the Manchester United striker pitched to the turf in excruciating pain late in the game following a challenge from Paulo Ferreira and was removed on a stretcher; concerns that his foot may have suffered the same metatarsal damage were not immediately allayed, and it was approaching 10pm last night when Sven Goran Eriksson's worst fears were confirmed.

The player, on whom it has so often been said that England's World Cup expectations are ultimately dependent, had again fractured a bone. It was the same injury, in the same right foot, that had been responsible for the premature curtailment of his Euro 2004 campaign.

Then Rooney was influential in England's progress to the quarter-finals. There is a widely held belief that England would have eliminated Portugal had it not been for that freak injury. This summer, if he makes a contribution at all, it will, barring miraculous intervention, be severely limited, with the prognosis of six weeks being required to recover.

Devastating enough for Eriksson, who may also have to construct a strike force without Newcastle's Michael Owen, who was unhappy with the condition of his own foot after a comeback against Birmingham yesterday. It was damnably cruel for the 20-year-old Rooney, who has developed into a talismanic presence for his country. Eriksson is in danger of losing not just a fine player, but England's beating heart.

A less committed player would have looked after himself once his team had conceded the third goal yesterday. Rooney does not possess such instincts. Even for the home supporters it was to cast a dark cloud over such a sun-kissed day.

Never one to skulk away from the spotlight, Jose Mourinho, who was not then to know the extent of Rooney's injury, skipped up to the podium, taking care to acknowledge a group of Chelsea Pensioners on the way, and claimed his championship medal.

Then he indulged in a slow striptease. First his scarf, then his jacket, and his tie. The championship medal went, too, into the crowd. He claimed he already had one from last year, together with a Champions' League medal won with Porto.

But was it more symbolic than that? If he had gazed up at his adoring audience, he would have witnessed the big man beaming down. Roman Abramovich, who always appears to be in a trance-like state, clapped metronomically. But what was going on behind the Russian's cold, impenetrable eyes?

For the moment, the Chelsea owner could wallow in the festivities taking place below his eyrie. The formalities had been duly completed and a second successive title was in Chelsea's safe keeping. Last year, a little earlier than this, there had been an explosion of euphoria after half a decade of waiting. This time, there was more of an air of inevitability that has lingered just about all season.

Although the victory, together with title confirmation, was effectively in the home side's possession from the moment that William Gallas headed Chelsea's first goal after five minutes, there were occasions when the temperature was unnecessarily raised.

Curiously, England players appeared to be the main culprits and victims. Rooney's first-half challenge on John Terry meant that the Chelsea captain would also leave the stadium with a bandage around an ankle after having several stitches inserted.

If Rooney merited a far more positive conclusion to his afternoon's endeavours, Chelsea's Joe Cole was his equal. A splendidly executed goal, Chelsea's second, and an assist for Ricardo Carvalho to convert the Blues' third goal exemplified his afternoon.

Terry says Chelsea wouldn't swap places with Arsenal for that date in Paris in 18 days' time. Oh, no? No, says Honest John. "Our time will come in Europe," he claimed. Yet, when Mourinho makes an honest review of the season, he will be forced to ponder the unpalatable questions: have Chelsea actually progressed this season, and is what they have achieved sufficient to satisfy an owner whose substantial backing has made them a club ever more grasping for success? One suspects not.

Mourinho had been unusually animated in a relatively tense first half. On one occasion, he berated Arjen Robben after the winger had failed to chase a loose ball out of Chelsea's defence. Robben grinned sheepishly. Later the Dutchman came perilously close to a two-footed challenge on a United player. Mourinho has many tasks to undertake before next season, and one will be to curb some of his players' excesses, both when contesting the ball and when disputing officials' verdicts. There have also been too many occasions when a failure to conduct themselves in a sporting fashion has diminished our admiration for them.

Mourinho complains that Chelsea are criticised more zealously than many rivals. He may be correct, in part, in that assertion. But, as yesterday's visiting manager - a man he admires greatly - would attest: such scrutiny is the price paid by champions. It's one worth paying.

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