Whilst many will point to the sending off of Nani as the primary reason for Manchester United’s shock Champions League exit on Tuesday night at the hand of Real Madrid, we are left wondering whether the outcome may have been different had Wayne Rooney have started.
The Englishman didn’t feature in manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s starting line-up and was brought on eventually after 73 minutes; after Nani had been dismissed for what the referee Cuneyt Cakir deemed dangerous play.
Ferguson opted to start young Tom Cleverley with Nani and Danny Welbeck flanking him on either side of United’s attacking midfield, anchored by Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, whilst striker Robin van Persie had a quiet game by his own high standards.
Whilst Welbeck’s inclusion is likely a reaction to his superb display at the Santiago Bernabeu last month, I wonder what the manager’s process was in Cleverley’s positioning.
Whilst there is no doubt the 23-year-old has developed well in the last two seasons and has worked very hard indeed to force his way into the first team as a regular this season, to me he is still not quite the caliber of player required for such an extra-ordinary fixture, in which you need experienced, quality professionals of the highest available standard.
United had a player of that extraordinary calibre and Ferguson opted to leave him on the bench for the majority of the game.
I understand the strategy behind this may have been to balance the midfield areas where Madrid were likely to dominate but, as the game wore on, that was not where United were found wanting. At least not with 11 men on the pitch.
It was in forward areas that they lacked bite and a clinical finisher even of Van Persie’s standards could not find the means to beat Diego Lopez who, it must be said, had the game of his career.
But I wonder whether Van Persie’s inability to penetrate Real Madrid’s defence and, subsequently, beat the keeper, may have been related to the exclusion of Rooney from the starting line-up.
The Dutchman has linked up exceptionally well with Rooney all season long and the Englishman has turned provider, feeding the frontman with assists and creative play that forwards like Van Persie thrive on.
The chemistry and understanding that has been built this season has been nothing short of devastating in the Premier League and I can’t help but feel the league’s top scorer was missing his partner in crime on Tuesday night.
When Rooney finally did arrive after Nani’s sending off and Madrid’s equalizer and =eventual winner, it was too little too late – he didn’t have the capacity to affect the game.
Even so, he very nearly scored a late equalizer after Van Persie struck the ball at the keeper and Rooney pounced on the rebound with an ambitious overhead kick.
Together they have been so dangerous this season and, to me, it makes no sense whatsoever to leave your best players on the bench in fixtures of such magnitude.
I wrote much the same this week of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger’s exclusion of Lukas Podolski who was benched for most of last weekend’s North London Derby.
When you have players of world-class quality fit and in form and available it’s unfathomable that you wouldn’t want them playing in your team for 90-odd minutes, especially when they bring with them leadership, determination, aggression and resolve like Rooney does.
Those are the kind of characters that drive teams forward – Rooney is the engine and the driver of the Manchester United vehicle. The likes of Steven Gerrard at Liverpool or Frank Lampard at Chelsea or Gareth Bale at Spurs. They are match-winners.
Wayne Rooney is the heartbeat of this United team and I simply cannot comprehend why his manager left him on the bench against Real Madrid in the last-16 of the Champions League.
As much as United fans and the manager himself may prefer to blame dismal refereeing decisions as the reason United lost the game, I think they may want to examine one glaring omission from their team's starting line-up as the starting point of where it all went wrong for them on the night.