By Matt Dodd.
“If you’re going to win this tournament, you’ve got to be prepared to play anyone and beat them.”
These the words from an invigorated Wayne Rooney in response to being asked whether he wanted to avoid Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, following Manchester United’s edgy win over Marseille.
And his positive attitude was just as pleasing as his encouraging display last night.
Rooney’s work-rate and movement was excellent, his passing was sublime whether it was long or short, and he played a key role in setting up Hernandez for the crucial first goal of the night.
So, is it too early to declare that Wayne Rooney is back? Perhaps. But the 25-year-olds’s performance was enough to suggest he is on track to returning to his old self, even though he didn’t improve on his recent goal-scoring form.
Despite the nerve-jangling end to the game, courtesy of an unfortunate Wes Brown own goal, United are through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League – and the treble is still on.
The Red Devils were without captain Nemanja Vidic because of a calf problem, and the Serb, who has been fantastic this season, was definately missed. The inexperienced, yet so far impressive, Chris Smalling was paired with Wes Brown, and the two failed to make a strong partnership in central defence as mistakes nearly cost United dearly.
However, Sir Alex Ferguson was blessed with options going forward. Antonio Valencia made the bench after recently returning from a lengthy lay-off with an ankle injury, while Nani made a speedy return to the starting XI following the shin injury he suffered at Liverpool.
Fergie opted to go with Nani and Ryan Giggs on the flanks, with Rooney and Javier Hernandez in attack. It’s never easy leaving out the Premier League’s top goal-scorer in Dimitar Berbatov, but it turned out to an excellent decision as the two linked up superbly from the start.
As Sir Alex promised from his programme notes, United came out and took the game to the French side from the first minute. And with just five minutes gone, Rooney’s neat cross found Hernandez who slotted in from close range.
It was the perfect start to the second-leg, and given the tempo United began with, the Old Trafford faithful probably expected a more comfortable night than the one they experienced.
The early pressure soon faded, and Marseille began to put a foot-hold into the game. André-Pierre Gignac and Souleymane Diaware both had guilt-edge chances before half-time to grab a priceless away goal for the side from south France.
United’s defence suffered further blows when John O’Shea’s night ended early because of a hamstring problem, only for his replacement, Rafael, to endure the same problem in the second half and was substituted for twin brother Fabio.
Marseille played with Man United’s nerves as the second half progressed, with former Red Gabriel Heinze coming close, before Hernandez temporarily relieved the anxiety of over 70,000 United fans.
The ‘little pea’ wheeled away in celebration after some smart link-up play from Valencia and Giggs resulted in the Mexico international being gifted another easy finish.
It would have seemed that with United 2-0 up and just fifteen minutes left, United fans could start thinking about beating the traffic and heading for the exits of Old Trafford.
Apparently not. Wes Brown’s headed own goal with seven minutes of time to play resulted in frantic finger-nail biting, but United managed to hold on to reach their fifth successive Champions League quarter-final.
United will discover their opponents for the last eight of the competition on Friday, and the message from Rooney is clear: “Whoever we get, we’ll be confident we can win.”
Sir Alex had praise for both Rooney and Hernandez who linked up devastatingly well, and the partnership may force top goal-scorer Berbatov to warm the United bench for the near future.
“Where Wayne has been playing in the past couple of games he is a real threat.
“He has such power and speed and Hernandez is unbelievable with his movement. The boy has goals in him.”
Fergie did, however, admit that injuries to United’s defence caused a lack of understanding and a nervy finish to the game.
“It was nervy because so many players came off with injuries. In defence it was maybe a lack of understanding between the players.
“We have changed the back four many times and without the experience of Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand you are going to be under pressure at times with the young players we have.”
With United safely in the hat for Friday’s Champions League quarter-final draw, attention will be shifted back to the Premier League this weekend for the visit of Bolton.
Sir Alex will be looking for another three points on Saturday before a two week break, due to internationals, which could be the perfect time for United’s defenders to return to full fitness ahead of the ‘home-straight’ of this fascinating season.
Rooney’s quotes via manutd.com
Ferguson’s quotes via BBC
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