Going into the second leg of the Champions League quarter final, Manchester United could not be in a more commanding position. Rooney finally looks back to his best, United have key players returning back from injury at the business end of the season and do not have to worry too much about the league. Most importantly, they hold a 1-0 lead from the first leg to take to Old Trafford and will be confident of beating Chelsea for a third time this season.
The win last week at Stamford Bridge, once a bogey ground with contentious refereeing decisions and undeserved losses, was a significant moment for United in their quest for a fourth European cup. The win was the first there in nine years and came courtesy of a move as good as any you’ll see this season when a combination of a glorious Carrick pass, Giggs’ magical touch to take the ball past Bosingwa, and finally Rooney’s powerful but measured finish past Cech gave us a 1-0 win.
Although the goal was scored in the 24th minute, United never truly looked like increasing their lead, but the same can be said of Chelsea. Apart from a few near-misses by Hernandez and Lampard’s shot cleared on the line by Evra at the end of the first half, United generally looked comfortable and got precisely what Ferguson had asked for: an away goal or two.
Ancelotti now has a difficult decision to make. He faces a tough task in overcoming a first-leg deficit, something which has been done only once this season when Inter Milan beat Bayern Munich. He also has to wrestle with the decision of whether or not to start with Fernando Torres, now that El Nino has gone almost 13 hours without a goal in a competitive fixture.
It is also selection problem that Sir Alex shares but more so due to a healthy competition for places .Dimitar Berbatov’s situation is unfortunate, especially taking into account that the Bulgarian is both the team and Premier League’s top scorer this season with 21 goals, a personal best, and is enjoying his best season in English football. Ferguson has admitted he fells ‘terrible’ having to inform Berbatov everytime he does not start, but he seems decided on one thing at least: Hernandez is the answer, and not the player whom he broke the bank to acquire from Spurs back in 2009.
How ironic it must be then, for the Mexican who arrived for a measly 7 million pounds compared to Berbatov’s transfer fee to overtake the latter in the pecking order. Ferguson’s faith in the Hernandez-Rooney partnership has not been misplaced, and was justified again last week although Hernandez did not get on the score-sheet against Chelsea.
For Rooney, his entire season has been a culmination of everything leading up to this point. The England star has been hounded by the media for the past 12 months, with his tiniest of actions scrutinized in the press. Yet, he was at the centre of United’s best play against Chelsea and is clearly enjoying his time on the park when paired with the Mexican. It is no coincidence that Rooney’s best form on the pitch has coincided with his pairing with Chicharito and thiis looks to be the formula that will ultimately bring glory to the Red Devils this season.
On the flanks, Nani and Valencia will be crucial in United’s wing-play and penetration in attack. Valencia has made an immediate impact on his return to the first team and it is as if he was never away, with his goal on Saturday against Fulham capping a remarkable turn-around since his injury.
Not much else needs to be said about Nani. The tricky Portuguese has been United’s chief orchestrator this season and continues to be instrumental in United’s title charge, both in the league and Europe. He is likely to be on the team sheet after adding two more assists to his tally at the weekend against the Cottagers.
Of course, Chelsea are still Chelsea. They have done it before and despite beating them twice already this season, they remain our biggest threat domestically, with memories of last season’s 2-1 loss at Old Trafford instantly springing to mind.
On the other hand, United have a flawless record in Europe against English opposition. They have won everytime they have been paired with an English team in the Champions League, and they will make it a perfect six wins out of six meetings by beating Chelsea.
Consider this: Chelsea’s usual first team regulars no longer possess the ‘fear factor’ they had last season when they won the double. The Blues have already lost seven games in the league this season, and no longer look invincible or a sure bet even against mid-table opposition evidenced by their recent draw at Stoke. They struggled to score against Wigan at home; a side battling relegation and whom they put seven past on the final day of last season.
Bringing Fernando Torres in on transfer deadline day, a move which was expected to save their season, has instead compounded their problems and even disrupted the attacking chemistry of Ancelotti’s forward line at a time when change is not welcome.
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