Without even kicking a ball, Chelsea were given a gift this week. One roll of Wayne Rooney’s ankle has altered the dynamic of the entire 2009-10 EPL campaign, and has handed Carlo Ancelotti more than just a lifeline, but possibly the title itself. While the Italian would never admit that the championship may have been won Tuesday night in Munich, this is the injury that Manchester United simply could not afford as the season enters its business end.
Soccer is not a statistics game. We that watch it know that more so than any other sport, a football match stat sheet can look you in the eyes and flat out lie. But in the case of United’s season, the stats don’t lie, they don’t mislead, heck, they don’t even fib. Rooney’s 34 goals dwarf second-running Dimitar Berbatov’s 12 on the season. A quick glance at the United squad, and one will find it difficult to spot another real goal threat. For all the growth of Antonio Valencia and Nani as the season has progressed, they are not true goalscorers, and United would be absolutely nowhere without Rooney.
The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo last summer posed the question of who would get the goals for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. And Wayne Rooney has answered the bell in emphatic fashion. But his potential 4-week setback begs a new question: who will now get the goals when they have grown so accustomed to the English starlet bagging them at will?
Look, no one is implying that Ferguson lacks the dexterity or expertise to rally his troops and use his tactical acumen to get a goal or two without his talisman. To question him would just be plain foolish. But, it is a telling point that he has kept his £30 million man Dimitar Berbatov to lurk in the shadows of Old Trafford all season long. A great eye for talent that can work within his system, Ferguson has left Berbatov on the bench because he knows his side are better without him. But it will be Berbatov that must emerge from those shadows and be United’s savior if they are to claim any silverware this season. And the jury is still out on the lanky Bulgarian.
To be fair, Berbatov possesses extraordinary skill with the ball, often making the difficult look simple. His passing is always precise, making it easy to link midfield with attack. So much so that it is as if he is an attacking midfielder in a striker’s body. But it is his low work-rate that still drives United fans up the wall. It is not just his lanky frame or his long, slow strides that deceptively make him look a lazy player. That is how he plays. He rarely helps on the defensive side of things and simply does not do enough running to lead the line. And in Ferguson’s system this season (not to mention the simple lack of options at striker), leading the line is what he will have to do. It is not in Berbatov’s game to play the role of sole striker, and his lackadaisical approach to the striker position will be difficult for United to overcome. He is the antithesis of Rooney in his work-rate. When losing the ball, he rarely hustles to win it back, a hallmark of Manchester United forward play. To combat Berbatov’s inability to play up front on his own, look for Ryan Giggs to come in as a second striker, and for Ferguson to employ more of a 4-4-1-1 system for the remainder of the campaign.
Chelsea will be chomping at the bit for this one, with Didier Drogba passing his fitness test for Saturday. Drogba and Rooney have been the premier strikers in the EPL this season, but with Rooney out, Chelsea will have to believe their route to the promised land just became a much easier one. The loss of Rooney is easily quantified with the dearth of goals behind him, but it is much more than that. He is their leader, their focal point, their heart and their soul. But anything can happen in 90 minutes of football, and if United can somehow muster an early goal, magic can happen at Old Trafford. If United win and go on to retain their title, it will surely be one of Alex Ferguson’s all-time Houdini acts. But don’t expect it to happen now that their all-conquering talisman will be watching from the stands.
Manchester United: Edwin Van der Sar; Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra; Nani, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Ji-Sung Park; Ryan Giggs; Dimitar Berbatov
Chelsea: Petr Cech; Paolo Ferriera, Alex, John Terry, Yuri Zhirkov; Mikel John Obi, Deco, Frank Lampard; Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda, Didier Drogba
Prediction: Manchester United 1 – 2 Chelsea
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