Champions League - Jim White: Roman got the wrong man
Roman Abramovich stormed out of Old Trafford last night, soon after Ji-Sung Park’s goal had taken the home side to their fourth Champions League semi-final in five years. The man with the European obsession had seen his hopes drizzle away once more into the Stretford night. No one wants this competition more than him, yet the fulfilment of his quest looks less plausible by the season.
On his way back south, the Chelsea owner would have had time to reflect on several things. That his players do not share his infatuation in the way Manchester United’s buy into the victory addiction of their manager was the most immediate. Watching Ryan Giggs strolling around providing yet further evidence that he has discovered the secret of suspending the ageing process must have made him wonder why some of his handsomely remunerated staff at nothing like Giggs’s age played in comparison as if stricken by arthritis. The architect of all three goals in this tie, his crosses and penalty box passing exquisite, Giggs was the boss here. Giggs was in charge. Abramovich will wonder too how it was that Park, John O’Shea and Javier Hernandez, a trio whose names would certainly not have featured in his famous hit-list of transfer targets, were the ones whose industry made the difference. They work for victory at Old Trafford.
But most of all he must have appreciated that when it came to his foray into the recent January transfer window, the most costly buying spree in English football history, he emerged with the wrong striker.
Fernando Torres was bought for £50 million to win games like the one last night. That was his function. That was his brief. Instead, he played as if in a fug. His confidence shattered, he was artless and heavy-limbed, a thin parody of the man who had shredded the indomitable United central defence so often in a Liverpool shirt. Poor Torres: he has become Chelsea’s Garry Birtles. Bought for £1.3m by Dave Sexton in 1981, the Nottingham Forest centre forward was supposed to deliver the title for his new club. Instead, he became defined by an inability to find the net. Endless jokes were coined about his bad run: 26 games he went without a goal. Torres is rapidly catching him up. Here’s how far his own drought stretches back: the last time he scored, Nick Clegg was still regarded as a credible politician.
Torres’s replacement by Didier Drogba at half-time last night was as telling a critique as a manager can deliver. That Drogba immediately delivered some urgency to an attack that played the first half as if under the impression that goals were not required from them, that Drogba showed an edgy purposefulness that wobbled the United backline, that Drogba actually scored, merely underlined Torres’s uselessness.
What must have made Abramovich smart most, however, was the performance of the man he could have had instead. The rumour around Manchester is that it was not so much City who wanted Wayne Rooney when he opened public contract negotiations last autumn, but Chelsea. Abramovich has long admired the player, seeing him as the key to delivery of European triumph. And last night his admiration could only have increased. Rooney was as magnificent as Torres was marginal. Playing behind Hernandez, he was abuzz with creativity, effort and intelligence. His passing was almost always accurate, and when it wasn’t he harried manfully to retrieve possession.
And it was when he ran at the Chelsea defence you realised quite what a proposition he can be. He tears across the turf with such muscular intent his very running style oozes threat. He is the embodiment of United’s counter-attacking principles: pace, power and precision in one bundle. No wonder the home crowd greeted his every touch with such applause. The equivocation that surrounded his transfer request has entirely disappeared from the Old Trafford stands. There, his actions have earned him total forgiveness.
By contrast, Torres has a long way to go to make up to the Chelsea fans. When United’s supporters chanted “what a waste of money” at his departure, there were plenty in the blue sections of the ground nodding in agreement. His lacklustre showing has already done for one manager this season: Roy Hodgson fell at Liverpool largely because he could not draw any sort of enthusiasm from the club’s talisman. Now Carlo Ancellotti too looks likely to pay the price of European defeat, brought on by the Spaniard’s failure. How Chelsea’s coach must look on at Ferguson with envy: how lucky to be in charge of a group of players – and a star figurehead – who know precisely how to translate other people’s obsessions into reality.
An award-winning columnist with the Daily Telegraph for which he has covered all the world’s major sporting events – Jim is well known and highly regarded in all parts of the media. A long-serving contributor to Radios 4 and 5, he consistently appears on BBC television and Sky for which he has recently written, and presented, documentaries on Jose Mourinho and Sven-Goran Eriksson. He is the author of the best-selling You'll Win Nothing With Kids, the memoir of his time as a wholly unsuccessful junior football coach.