One the face of it, things are looking rosy for Manchester United in the Champions League. Top of their group and full points after two tricky ties against decent European opposition. After defeating Celtic by 3-2 at home a couple of weeks ago, United travelled to Benfica and got â€œa bloody different result this timeâ€, as Sir Alex Ferguson predicted before the match. He was, of course, referring to last yearâ€™s 2-1 defeat at Benficaâ€™s Stadium of Light, which put us out of the competition in the group stage for the first time in a decade.
United desperately needed to put that catastrophy behind them, and they did just that. On Tuesday night, we emerged with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over a spirited Benfica side, and restored some pride in Europe. Teams definitely wonâ€™t fancy facing us in the later stages of the competition.
Underneath the surface, however, cracks are starting to appear after a wonderful start to the season. Firstly, itâ€™s becoming clear that United have no fit wingers in the squad except Cristiano Ronaldo. After Ryan Giggs got injured, weâ€™ve played Kieran Richardson, Darren Fletcher, Wayne Rooney and even Paul Scholes on the side of the midfield, without any of them being too successful. Neither Kieran nor Darren are good enough for a place in the starting 11, Wayne Rooneyâ€™s simply too good to be wasted in that position, and Paul Scholes has always hated playing there. With Park also out with injury, Unitedâ€™s lack of decent cover has been exposed.
Secondly, Michael Carrick does not seem to suit our system of play. He simply looks lost next to Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney, et al. Maybe itâ€™s because he hasnâ€™t had the time to adapt to the speed of our play, maybe he misses being the fulcrum of the teamâ€™s attacking exploits like he was at Tottenham, or maybe he just isnâ€™t good enough. Either way, itâ€™s turning out to be a major problem as Fergie seems hellbent of playing him alongside another attacking midfielder â€“ the aforementioned Scholes â€“ instead of having one of them play alongside the more defensive-minded John Oâ€™Shea.
Which brings us to our next problem â€“ that we have no natural holding midfielder in our squad, at least not one of sufficient class. Sure, both Oâ€™Shea and Alan Smith, when he returns, can do a job in the position, but letâ€™s face it, neither one is the next Keano. Why we didnâ€™t go for Mascherano during the summer, I still donâ€™t know. He would have helped balance our team, making sure our defensive line wasnâ€™t left as exposed as it was during the past three or four games. Unless this problem is addressed during the January transfer window, I fear weâ€™ll be facing another trophyless season come May.
Furthermore, we have, at least temporarily, lost our fighting spirit. Together with playing attractive attacking football, our never-say-die, gung-ho attitude has been the foremost feature of Sir Alex Fergusons Manchester United sides. One therefore has to question whether Fergie has lost that ability to frighten his players into action, whether he can still inspire his players to outfight their opposition, whether his renowned â€œhairdryer treatmentâ€ has finally lost itâ€™s effectiveness. Sir Alex has never been among the most tactically astute of managers. He has instead relied upon his man-management and winning mentality. If heâ€™s lost that, weâ€™re really in trouble.
Finally â€“ and perhaps most worryingly, the Wayne Rooney conundrum. Before the game against Benfica, I wasnâ€™t worried. Having played only three games after a six-month period in which he played only a handful of games, I figured that heâ€™s just taking his time, that heâ€™ll improve game-by-game, and that heâ€™s only a human being â€“ a kid at that. Now, however, Iâ€™m getting nervous. Against Benfica, he wasnâ€™t just bad, he was awful. He actually seems to be regressing. This suggests that something more sinister is going on than simply a lack of match fitness. He didnâ€™t seem to want the ball, and in the few instances where he did get hold of it, he couldnâ€™t even seem to make a decent pass. Heâ€™s lost all confidence, and itâ€™s just getting worse.
The Rooney I saw Tuesday is simply not the same player we have all come to love over the past couple of years. Sure, his work-rate is still good, but he displayed none of the enthusiasm or spirit of games past, none of the marauding raids down the flanks, none of the explosiveness and cheekiness that have always made him stand apart from even the most accomplished of players. Itâ€™s almost as if Cristiano Ronaldo has stolen his mojo.
For, if there is one positive to take from the last few games, itâ€™s Ronaldoâ€™s sensational form. On Tuesday, Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, hailed him as â€œthe future best player of the worldâ€. Perhaps heâ€™s right, but Iâ€™d rather see Ronaldo and Rooney both play well together, instead of one or the other. If they were able to do that, I think we could have a real chance in both domestic and European competitions this season, as, on top form, theyâ€™re both marvellous players. It would be a sight to remember, and one I hope weâ€™ll witness on Sunday against Newcastle, a team against which Rooney historically excels.
Until then, Iâ€™ll pray for you Wayne. Get well soon!