I don’t think there will ever be a time when the memory of Steven Gerrard’s slip, which resulted in Demba Ba nipping in to score a goal for Chelsea at Anfield to start the collapse which cost Liverpool the title, will stop being funny. It was manna from heaven for United fans, fearful of their most despised rivals finally breaking their Premier League duck right at the end of Gerrard’s illustrious career. We hated him because he was so good, a world class midfielder who became the embodiment of his club and city, who turned down almost guaranteed titles and huge money at Chelsea to remain with the team who is in his heart. Except we hate the team in his heart and thus hated him too. That he, Mr Liverpool, cost his club their greatest desire at the point which was almost certain to be his last shot at it, was genuinely glorious. Schadenfreude 101. The memes will never get old.
We have our own legendary player, Wayne Rooney, and his career has gone rather differently. Indeed, it’s almost the reverse of Gerrard’s. In his younger years he drowned in trophies at United, a club which, for the most part, was on top of its game. But time has not been kind to either the club or player. A, ahem, hard-living lifestyle has ravaged Rooney’s body and he entered terminal decline at 27/28, slowly a shadow of his once barnstorming self. His fall from grace has rather matched that of his club, and United face the possibility of a third season out of four out of the Champions League, if top four or Europa League triumph is not achieved. We are approaching a situation where playing amongst the continent’s elite is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Parasitic ownership and dreadful managerial choices have morphed the club into, well, Liverpool.
Rooney is suddenly Gerrard, but rather than attempting to win the title he has been thrust into the role of trying to save United from a descent into the football wilderness. His decline has meant that Jose Mourinho, more self-assured and free-thinking that his two predecessors, has essentially ostracised him from the team and at times the squad. An exit this summer is almost a certainty, Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record secured, and Rooney is now a husk of a player, running around the pitch at 10 mph whilst the rest of the game frenetically passes him by at 20. United’s epic season, now into the sixties in terms of matches played, has ravaged the squad and suddenly the player finds himself thrust into the team as a last-resort, he’s alive so he’ll do, body. A goal at Burnley couldn’t hide how off the pace he was and a penalty against Swansea failed to obscure the fact that his teammates were essentially playing with ten men on Sunday. It’s incredibly sad to see, as self-inflicted as the decline has been, and depressing to watch when what your side needs right now are match-winners. Unfortunately it simply does not have that resource right now.
Instead of glory, Rooney had his Gerrard moment on Sunday afternoon. His team, clinging onto a rather undeserved lead and only a goal ahead after he had managed to shoot against his own player from six yards, just had to keep the visitors and their specialist free kick taker, Sigurdsson at bay. And they were doing so, just, on the way to three points which would put them third and offer a reasonable chance at Champions League qualification. But enter Rooney, gassed, who barged into a Swansea player entirely unnecessarily in peak Sigurdsson territory. It was an absurd challenge, as stupid as Fellaini’s needless sending off at the Etihad last week. And the rest is history. United drew 1-1 at home, again, equalling the record for most home draws in Premier League history, and with away games at Arsenal and Spurs the chance of a top four finish is surely finally gone. With injuries now at chronic levels the Europa League is now looking incredibly dicey. It felt like a seismic moment, perhaps as symbolic of a declining career and club as Gerrard’s was of Liverpool’s eternal role as either the Premier League brides-made or ugly step-sister. It is likely to be Rooney’s most memorable and decisive moment this season and whilst it won’t become iconic in the way that Gerrard’s slip did it is every bit as symbolic. His long, slow and painful descent into decrepitude has been painful to watch and has slowly taken some of the sheen off our memories of what was for many years a spectacular, stellar period for him on the pitch. That needless tackle and subsequent goal just felt like a suitable end point, a clapped-out great costing his club a major target with a momentary mistake. This is a sad end to the season for Rooney and, subject to Europa League progression, the club.
Of course, there were eleven players on the pitch on Sunday, most of whom under-performed, with the exception of the deeply frustrated Marcus Rashford (now officially a member of the Club Snide for his penalty dive) and one or two others who at least played with heart. The rest are either knackered or simply not good enough at football. It was depressing to see Luke Shaw once more succumb to injury and even more depressing to hear his manager launch a thinly veiled attack on the player post-match. However, it was the loss of Eric Bailly to an ankle injury that felt like a potential death knell for a season. If it is short-term then there is still hope, but to loose the absolutely exceptional centre back for the vital upcoming games would be absolutely crippling, particularly given that there would then be no fit senior defenders at the club. The back four which ended the Swansea game consisted of three full backs and a winger and it would take a miracle to get to and win in Stockholm in May in that state.
The draw on Sunday threw away what was an obdurate but seemingly important performance and point earned at City last Thursday. United didn’t play well and defended for their lives, but City did not convince either. Both teams seemed scared to lose and neither did. Given the hype at the start of the season, to see two super-rich clubs with box-office managers producing a match which was the possibly the most wretched, timid, poor-quality spectacle of the Premier League season as they fight for the right to finish in fourth place demonstrates just what incredibly disappointing domestic campaigns both have endured. Neither manager covered themselves in glory and both will rightly be criticised for their own underperformance. Has Jose got United playing the way that they should, oh yeah, on a regular basis? Not for me. A 25 game unbeaten run may demonstrate progress, but whether it has been enough is borderline. What’s more, missing Champions League will have an impact on signings and will thrust United back into a Europa League that Mourinho and others are using to part-excuse the season’s failings. If we’re in it again we may well be hearing the same excuses next April, as Antoine Griezmann suns himself in a Champions League semi-final at Atletico once again. These are massive moments in a season.
United will go into Thursday’s semi-final first leg at Celta Vigo on Thursday with a patchwork team. Pogba and Mata might return, but they might not. The absence of the former could be terminal, but not as devastating as if Eric Bailly is absent. Celta have been prioritising the Europa League for weeks and fielded a reserve side for their weekend defeat at home to Bilbao. They will be fresh and sharp. United resemble Vladimir Klitschko after Anthony Joshua’s first devastating upper-cut and subsequent first meeting with the canvas, up and standing but clinging on for dear life with wobbling legs and double vision. I.e. me the morning after an ill-advised lash up. It would be an astonishing achievement were United to win the competition from here, for which the manager and players should be showered with praise, regardless of past mistakes and under-performance. But there is a nagging feeling that the season has lasted a month too long.
Sunday felt like the end of United’s Premier League top four challenge, as inconsistent as their rivals may be. The psychology and talent just appears to not be there at this stage, rather symbolised by the need to roll out a hopelessly off the pace Wayne Rooney. As it is he will surely be part of the final push in Europe and it would be nice if we could have a final memory of him that is positive, and not a moronic and season-sabotaging challenge against a relegation threatened opponent at a deathly quiet Old Trafford. If it ends like this it will suck.