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As has regularly been the case for United this season, all eyes were on Rooney; our most important player, our most improved player and the man to seemingly save Ronaldo-less United. But as always when he visits Goodison Park, the universal gaze was fixed on Rooney more than ever.
In Everton’s last league game, we saw them do us a mighty favour by beating Chelsea; with United old-boy Saha the hero. How fitting it would be if Saha was to do one over his old team, but even more fitting you felt was for Rooney – already prematurely tipped to win Messi’s Balon d’Or for 2010 – to have a shocker against HIS old team.
As soon as the game kicked off, you severely got that sense. Rooney was barely in the game and seemed as distant from the attained inspirational frontman persona as possible. Yet as much as everyone loves to claim it, the fact is that United never have been a one man side. If someone as pivotal as Rooney isn’t at his best, you would simply expect others to somehow capitalise and take their chance; especially those who are constantly in the shadow of the awesome England striker.
Ironically therefore, it was his constantly criticised strike partner that worked the harder and generally had a superior half; culminating in his 16th minute goal. If there’s one thing that fans and critics alike are in agreement when it comes to the enigma of Berbatov, it ISNT that he has been a waste of 30million quid, but that he has one of the best first touches in the game. With Valencia’s ball fumbling awkwardly towards him whilst surrounded by 3 Everton players, he calmly controlled it with typical elegance you’d expect of this intelligent player. One touch to take the pace off the ball and a second to smash it home. 1-0.
The lead lasted exactly 3 minutes, yet although Everton posed a threat and arguably ended the half the stronger; it was the lack of influence and impact of our top goalscorer that was perhaps more pressing than the first-half scoreline.
As I’m typing away at half-time, I’ve got the luxury of penning my thoughts down about Rooney’s ‘absence’ when their as fresh as possible. So, my theory is as to why the commonly regarded ‘player of the season’ struggled, isn’t revolved around the conception that he can’t play with Berbatov; nor that Everton got their tactics so spot on that they completely took him out of the game (although, credit where it’s due, that did play a big part). It was actually, I reckon, due to the absence of Giggs.
With Park naturally replacing the winger (as Nani was of course also ruled out), we immediately lacked creativity down the left. The defensive-minded Park was so deep at times that it forced, or at least allowed, the wondering Rooney to drift wide: a) because someone had to fill that void and try and create play on the left, and b) because he loves a good wonder. This was also evident as the majority of our play was focussed down the right; which although undoubtedly successful (as that’s how we scored), left us without great innovation and/or options.
Little changed in the second half, especially with regards to Rooney’s impact. But if our lack of innovation in the firsthalf was down to certain players not performing, the second can not be as harsh in neglecting Everton’s efforts. The score finished 1-3, although the 1-2 scoreline would’ve probably been fairer; but either way, this was the day that proved Rooney really is human, Berbatov still has a lot to offer – as does Neville, who I thought had a decent game – and more graciously, this was Everton’s day, who quite simply dominated the Champions.
So what now? Has all our hard work to get to within touching distance of Chelsea seemingly been wasted? One thing is for certain; a title is not lost or won in February. A bad day and an average performance by our key players equally does not lose the title, but what can help win it is a response.
After the Carling Cup Final in 8 days we have the visit of Fulham and Liverpool to look forward to – two teams that have already beaten us in the reverse fixtures. If our sixth defeat of the season is not enough motivation to see us pull through till the end of the season, then the thought of Liverpool beating us for the fourth consecutive league game to give Chelsea the edge will surely do it. And remember, if there’s one thing our ever reliable leader can do is to find that response.