Manchester United will face Valencia in the Champions League on Wednesday without Wayne Rooney, who has succumbed to an ankle injury and did not travel. The problem, which precipitated the striker’s substitution against Bolton Wanderers, will force a change in tactics from Sir Alex Ferguson, who dare not lose to the La Liga leaders.
Rooney’s injury was initially diagnosed as nothing serious by manager Ferguson leading the speculation that the striker has been dropped on the basis of his continuing poor form. Whatever the truth, Ferguson’s thinking for the match has been clarified by his star player’s absence. Always likely to deploy a lone-forward at Mestalla, the Scot no longer has to consider the previously unthinkable – dropping Rooney on form, or using the former Evertonian on the left wing.
Such is Dimitar Berbatov’s form – and turnaround in fortunes – that he will certainly start just his second Champions League fixture in the past ten.
The Scot has put extra store in United’s result against Valencia after the dour stalemate against Rangers at Old Trafford earlier this month. Lose to Valencia tomorrow night and United’s dropped points against the Scottish champions could still prove costly in a group the Reds are supposed to win comfortably.
If Ferguson’s last-minute dash to watch Spain’s ‘other giant’ caught supporters and the media by surprise last Wednesday, there is little doubt how important the Scot now rates the result. United has not failed to qualify from the group stages since the disastrous 2005/6 campaign in which Ferguson’s side lost to both Benfica and Lille.
But if United is to take a point from the trip south then Ferguson’s men will have to do without both Rooney and Ryan Giggs, who is likely to sit out the next fortnight with a hamstring strain. Paul Scholes played the full 90 against Bolton on Sunday and did not travel with Ferguson’s 22-man party. The 35-year-old midfielder rarely completes two matches back-to-back.
With Owen Hargreaves still on the sidelines, Michael Carrick returning to training this week and Anderson short of minutes after a lengthy rehabilitation, Ferguson is short of options in midfield.
Alongside Darren Fletcher, two of Anderson, Darron Gibson or Carrick will come into a three-man central midfield. Park Ji-Sung is most likely to take Giggs’ role on the left flank, although Bébé travelled with the squad. Berbatov will start as United’s lone-striker.
United supporters will have much to ponder about United’s creativity in Scholes’ absence, with Park likely to reprise his role as the Reds’ ‘defensive attacking midfielder’ and Nani the essential outlet.
Ferguson also has concerns about Rio Ferdinand, who sat out the draw with Bolton as a precaution, but has completed just 90 minutes of first team football this season. The 32-year-old England captain is likely to partner Nemanja Vidic at the heart of a United defence that has conceded seven times on the road this season.
“It is a big concern conceding so many away goals,” captain Vidic said.
“We have lost too many goals in away games and we have to stop that. We haven’t given that many goals away in the past. We have always looked strong and haven’t given teams so many chances.
“We have to be much better in Spain. Valencia are in decent form and won their first [Champions League] match 4-0 and are now top of La Liga. That shows how well they are playing at the moment.”
“At Bolton, there was one goal conceded from a set-piece and one came after a corner, which is not good. We are giving teams too many opportunities and they are taking them. We have to work on the small details and keep coming again.
“It is hard to explain what is going wrong. It is not the true Manchester United. It does have to be sorted out very quickly.”
Starting at Mestalla on Wednesday night, although with Jonny Evans and John O’Shea seemingly make the worst fist of a good opportunity this season, nothing is guaranteed on that front.
Meanwhile, Valencia will seek to extend United’s barren run in Europe against Spanish opposition. Ferguson’s side has won only once in Spain and failed to score on the last three visits. Indeed, United has faced some tough fixtures against the port side.
The clubs first met in the 1982/83 UEFA Cup, with Valencia winning 2-1 at Mestalla following a goalless draw in Manchester two weeks earlier. The sides met in the Champions League in 1999/2000, United winning 3-0 at home and drawing 0-0 away, with Valencia and not United making the final. The following season Valencia again went all the way with the sides playing out two draws in the group stage.
With the club due to move into a new 75,000-seater Nou Mestalla in the north-west of the city in 2011, this may be the last chance for United supporters to expeirience the intimidating Mestalla atmosphere, with stands close to the pitch and steeply banked seats rising high above the pitch.
Despite the club’s stature, Los Che are Spain’s surprise league leaders this season, with Unai Emery’s side seemingly not regressing after the sale of David Silva and David Villa to Manchester City and Barcelona for a combined £50 million fee. Emery’s side play an attacking brand of football with wingers Juan Manuel Mata and Joaquín Sánchez providing pace and width.
It’s a threat that Ferguson has clearly in mind.
Valencia – 433 – César Sánchez; Bruno, Navarro, R Costa, Alba; Rodríguez, Topal, Fernandes; Joaquín, Soldado, Mata. Subs from: Albelda, Domínguez, Aduriz, Feghouli, Guaita, Dealbert, Stankevičius, Hernández, Banega, Mathieu, Monteiro, T Costa, Moyà.
Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Amos, Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, O’Shea, Evans, Rafael, Brown, Anderson, Bebe, Nani, Carrick, Gibson, Fletcher, Park, Hernández, Berbatov, Macheda, Owen.
Referee: Viktor Kassai
Assistant referees: Gabor Eros & Tibor Vamos
Fourth official: Ferenc Bede
Additional assistant referees: Mihaly Fabian & Tamas Bognar
Valencia – WWWWDW
United – WDDWWD