The question posed at the start of this Premier League season against Manchester United was whether they could replace Cristiano Ronaldo and whether someone could step up and fill the considerable boots of the Portuguese star. Wayne Rooney firmly answered that question, but now in the absence of their talismanic centre-forward United are having to fend a similar question, with Chelsea having the first opportunity to test their credentials.
With news that Rooney is to be kept out for three to four weeks with an ankle ligament injury described as minor United are in dire need of some of their players to grasp the mantle and push their side on to eventual glory. Huge pressure falls immediately on the shoulders of United’s £30m striker Dimitar Berbatov with many unsure whether the Bulgarian has the ability to shine on his own. In last weekend’s win away at Bolton, Berbatov put in the kind of performance to allay many of these fears in what was one of his best performances of the season. In the absence of Rooney, Berbatov was placed under immediate scrutiny in a match which posed a real test of the attacking attributes of the Bulgarian and on this occasion the former Tottenham man did not disappoint. Berbatov was a constant option for any of the United players in possession and his hold up play throughout was sublime.
One of the greatest attributes of the Bulgarian is his touch and ability to hold onto the ball when under increased pressure. United’s inability to do this against Bayern Munich during that fateful Champions League evening was highlighted by Sir Alex Ferguson as the main reason for the defeat with the introduction of Berbatov a tactic used to try and maintain some possession for United and stem the flow of the Munich attacks. If the Bulgarian can replicate some of his performance in leading the line at the Reebok then United certainly stand a good chance of defeating Chelsea. This however, is a big ask as there is a huge gulf in class between Chelsea and Bolton. Berbatov is undoubtedly a huge talent but he has not been a feature from the start of any of United’s biggest encounters since Christmas which suggests that he does not fully have the faith of his manager when it comes to the crunch. Many of the United fans feel that the former Leverkusen man does not have the big match mentality with his comments about being overawed in his first season evidence of this. Now surely is the time for him to stand up and fully justify the huge outlay for his services.
It would be unfair for Berbatov alone to be required to win the match against Chelsea with the threat having to come from other areas. Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti has pointed to the fact that United may regroup in the absence of Rooney with the players putting in the kind of performance to prove once and for all that they are not a one man team. This could work in United’s favour as Chelsea will not be able to pinpoint United’s game plan as currently no one is sure how Sir Alex will set out his charges. Players such as Nani who have had the occasional match of brilliance will be required to do this on a consistent basis throwing themselves into a pivotal position rather than the occasional contribution from the periphery. The return of the inspirational Ryan Giggs from injury may have happened at the crucial part of the season to enable the Welshman to remind us of his undoubted ability. United certainly have the potential in the side to continue their good run of league form and inflict what could be a title defining win on Saturday. Whether they can harness this against a recently rampant Chelsea is a question which can only be answered come kick off at Old Trafford.
It is not only the Chelsea match for which Rooney is likely to be absent with the former Everton man set to miss the return against Bayern on Wednesday, the away match at Blackburn Rovers and potentially the Manchester derby and Spurs at Old Trafford. These are all huge encounters in which the influence of Rooney will undoubtedly be missed which for every Manchester United fan makes a mockery of the statement that Rooney’s injury is minor and the relief felt by the rest of the country. Looking at the facts many will feel the loss of Rooney will cause United’s season to collapse handing the Premier League crown to Chelsea and ruining any chance of making a third Champions League final in a row. Winning in adversity is however, a huge attribute of both this club and its manager so to bet against United doing this once more against Chelsea and throughout the remaining games of the season may well be a foolish position to take.