Rooney has been the best and most consistent player in the English Premier League this season. Only Chelsea’s Didier Drogba will come anyway close to challenging the English international for the various \’Player of the Year’ gongs at the end of the season.
United have relied heavily on Rooney with the striker weighing in with an astonishing 23 goals in all competitions this term. The fact that Own Goals (11) and Dimitar Berbatov (8) are United’s next highest scorers tells you all you need to know about Rooney’s importance to United’s ambitions to lift some silverware before the end of the current campaign.
Rooney has blossomed into United’s most important attacking player since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo but amazingly has yet to score in this season’s Champions League competition.
The latter stages of the tournament will see Rooney face his toughest defences to date starting with Milan’s Alessandro Nesta at Old Trafford tomorrow night.
After that Inter Milan, Chelsea or even the Bayern Munich defence are likely to man-mark Rooney in an attempt to smother his influence.
Michael Owen has fired in four goals during United’s European campaign but is unlikely to feature prominently in the latter stages meaning the Old Trafford club’s success in the competition will be down to how well Rooney escapes the shackles of the some of the top European defences.
There is no doubting Rooney’s class and he is in the form of his life but United will need goals (and plenty of them) from the remaining squad members to have any chance of lifting the coveted trophy once again.
If Rooney is shackled, then the responsibility will probably fall on Berbatov, Carrick, Giggs (if fit), Nani and Fletcher to come up with the goals. United might have enough quality to get past Milan in the last sixteen round but their over-reliance on Rooney’s goals won’t be enough to win them the trophy this term.
Reason 2 – The absence of a settled Vidic & Ferdinand partnership
Injury to United’s two first choice centre-halves has not hampered their Premier League title bid but Sir Alex Ferguson knows he will need his best defenders available for a tilt at the Champions League trophy.
Wes Brown and Johnny Evans have deputised admirably during the first choice centre-backs’ enforced absences but if Vidic or Ferdinand are fit they will start.
United conceded six goals at home in qualifying from Group B earlier in the competition but kept three consecutive clean-sheets in their away fixtures.
This statistic augurs well for the latter stages of the competition and Ferdinand in particular will be anxious to atone for his recent ban for throwing a stray elbow against Hull City.
The form of the new England Captain is vital to United’s CL hopes but the fact he and Vidic have played together only sporadically this term means both must hit the ground running as soon as Vidic returns from injury. Reports of the Serbian’s head being turned about a possible lucrative transfer to Real Madrid, Barcelona or even Manchester City in the summer may also affect his performances when he returns to action.
Vidic and Ferdinand are an impressive defensive pairing when they are fit and playing regularly and are difficult to get past on the ground or in the air. Not being able to maintain their excellent partnership from last season through a combination of injury and suspension suggests it is unlikely they will be as effective at this late stage of the season.
Reason 3 – Injury hampering influence of Ryan Giggs
Ryan Giggs innocuous looking challenge with James Collins during United’s recent clash with Aston Villa has left the Welsh International sidelined from the Milan clash with a broken arm. Giggs has been used sparingly (starting only once and scoring) by Sir Alex Ferguson in the CL this season but the United veteran can always be relied upon to perform whenever the big European nights come around in the final stages of the tournament.
What Giggs has lost in pace he has more than made up for in his positioning and effective use of the ball. United will especially miss his poise and experience tomorrow night against a battle-hardened Milan side in which a typical Giggs through ball or slide-rule pass might unlock the Italian defence.
Ferguson will look to his veteran midfielder – and possibly Paul Scholes as well – in his starting line-up or as impact substitute in the latter stages of the competition but any further injuries to either will end their CL ambitions for another season.
Ger McCarthy is author of the book Off Centre Circle, which chronicles the curious life of a West Cork League junior footballer.