Picking through the chaotic, rubble-strewn mess that was the Old Trafford pitch on Tuesday night, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t enjoy Manchester United’s topsy-turvy 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen, discounting those ABUs whose enjoyment of the game is solely derived from the defeat of their rivals.
With United initially asking all the questions, the second half saw both sides throw caution – and any semblance of the organisation one expects from teams assembled by David Moyes and THE GERMANS – into the eye of a hurricane.
In addition to six goals, oodles of drama and countless comedy errors, there was a performance of some majesty by Wayne Rooney, who scored twice, grabbed a sumptuous assist and reached a couple of landmarks in the process.
The first – hitting a British record 28 Champions League goals with his opening goal and extending it with his second – was no great shakes. Britain’s most prolific strikers in the Champions League era so far (Alan Shearer and Michael Owen) arguably did not play enough games in that competition to give such a statistic great merit. Spain’s Raul, for example, managed a whopping 71 for Real Madrid and Schalke; his bodyguard for club and country – Fernando Morientes – lies two goals above Rooney, who is 13 net-bulgers short of the top 10.
The second landmark for the rejuvenated Roo is far more striking, as the 27-year-old reached the magic double ton of goals for United. That is some feat, and quite impressive coming off the back of a summer that saw him derided as not just surplus to requirements, but as a washed-up has-been, a mojo-deficient Fernando Torres whose prime was long passed.
What a difference a crack on the skull makes.
For all his weight-carrying issues, Rooney is a natural athlete in the sense that his constitution gives him power, pace and a strange reserve of stamina, the combination of which yields an overall physical presence that is difficult to rival. His mental state – while mercurial – is fronted by aggression and determination, characteristics which ultimately override the crises of concentration and confidence he is prone to.
What Rooney needs is a good, old-fashioned shot in the arm, a b*llocking from a superior, or a frightener from a courtier – that Chelsea, for example, were reluctant to offer more than £25-odd million for him would have jabbed at Rooney’s alpha-ego. He had a point to prove, both to the United supporters murmuring that his time was up, and to a Chelsea board assessing his worth as half-a-Torres.
Rooney’s return to fire and form must be taken into a wider context at United though. The Premier League champions (and it is easy to forget amidst the wild summer spending that United remain the team to beat) are perceived as solid defensively and capable of magic at the front-end, but workmanlike in the middle of the park.
Hacks and fans alike were worried that Moyes had not done enough to boost United’s tiresome midfield, that the likes of Antonio Valencia – brilliant against Leverkusen – lacked the spark to mix it with the big boys.
What lacked in the middle has surely been boosted by the signing of Marouane Fellaini, who will find top gear soon enough, and the return to the team of Shinji Kagawa reminds us that Moyes has one of the finest attacking playmakers in Europe at his disposal. And, of course, a revitalised Rooney is as dangerous as anyone in the number 10 role. A fit Nani will remain a perplexing threat from wide, while Danny Welbeck is direct and versatile, and Adnan Januzaj hugely promising provided he doesn’t go the way of Paul Pogba.
The spending of rival teams on flamboyant attackers has been impressive, but it is worth noting that the acquisitions of Manuel Neuer and Javi Martinez are what turned Bayern Munich into the best team in Europe.
All the moaning and groaning about the lack of a marquee forward or playmaker– and all of Moyes and carnival clown Ed Woodward’s bungling attempts to sign one – distracted from a United defence that, while swelled in numbers, is as flaky as Rooney’s scalp after a Phil Jones tickle.
Rio Ferdinand was all over the shop against Leverkusen, and Nemanja Vidic little better; a flappy David De Gea did a better impression of Batman than rent-a-chin Ben Affleck will ever do; Patrice Evra remains awkward positionally. The only United defender to truly convince was a young centre-back playing out of position on the right, and Chris Smalling is still rawer than his years suggest after coming to the professional game later than most.
There is a genuine concern that Jones’ injury problems may turn chronic, and that his versatility will be his downfall: a centre-back must play regularly at centre-back – two things Jones is not doing at the moment – if he is to develop the positional and game-intelligence that marks a clogger from a great.
United’s defensive future has been built around the development of Jones into one of the world’s finest defenders. That progress has stalled, and while De Gea is likely to replace Iker Casillas as Spain’s top goalkeeper and rival Manuel Neuer as the world’s greatest, the lack of dominance he showed on Tuesday is worrying.
With Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra unlikely to be three of the starting four in two years’ time, Moyes would do well to pay closer attention to his back door than the front garden his team’s supporters are demanding to adorn with roses.