Man United's season teeters on verge of disaster
It wasn't just Wayne Rooney's ankle that turned painfully on the turf in Germany. Manchester United's season is teetering on the edge of disaster after it succumbed to Bayern Munich in the Champions League and its vitally important striker hobbled on crutches out of the arena.
Until Tuesday night, and largely because of Rooney, United's parsimonious decision last year to sell Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid in the offseason and not buy a like-for-like replacement for the Portuguese goal-scorer hadn't really seemed to matter.
United manager Alex Ferguson said he wasn't willing to spend silly sums on a world-class star - someone, for instance, like Bayern's Franck Ribery, whose darting runs exposed United on Tuesday and who scored the first of its two goals.
Fans, meanwhile, worried that the real reason why Ferguson largely held on to the millions that Real forked out was because United's American owners needed the money to soak up some of the club's huge debts.
Whatever the truth, Rooney ensured that the loss of Ronaldo was quickly forgotten. As Rooney rained in goals, United's underlying problems could be pushed onto the backburner.
No longer. The coming weeks, when trophies and leagues are decided, will be surgeon-like in exposing the weaknesses in clubs across Europe - quite possibly including United if Rooney is absent for long.
In France, Bordeaux was cruising just weeks ago but now could finish empty-handed unless manager Laurent Blanc, spoken of as a possible eventual replacement for Ferguson at United, can rally his side. The French champions lost the League Cup final to Marseille last Saturday. Their unbeaten Champions League run this season ended with a 3-1 quarterfinal first-leg loss in Lyon on Tuesday. Their French league lead, a comfortable nine points at the start of 2010, has melted like winter snow.
In Italy, Jose Mourinho hung out a ``for hire'' sign after AS Roma beat his Inter Milan side 2-1 last weekend to move within a point of the Serie A leader with seven games remaining. The former Chelsea manager has always had an inflated opinion of himself and his shameless angling for another job before Inter's Champions League quarterfinal against CSKA Moscow on Wednesday put his own interests before those of his team.
``I'm not happy in Italian football,'' Mourinho said. ``I don't like it and they don't like me. Simple.''
Either Real Madrid or FC Barcelona will win Spain's lopsided league, as one of them has done every year since Valencia was champion in 2004. Yet Real's expensively assembled squad has yet to convince. Already eliminated from the competition, the closest it will come to the Champions League trophy this season will be when it lends its stadium for the May 22 final.
Rooney twisted his ankle at the end of United's 2-1 loss to Bayern and hobbled off, supported under the arms by United staff. Whether his injury is bad wasn't immediately clear, but even a sprain that sidelines him for a week or two could be fatal for United, because now is when Ferguson needs Rooney's scoring most.
Of the six Premier League matches United has left, none are more important than against second-place Chelsea this weekend. A loss could sink United's prospects of a fourth consecutive title.
And unless it can score at least one goal when Bayern travels to Old Trafford in the return leg of their quarterfinal next week, United will be out of the Champions League.
Rooney has carried United this season, scoring 34 - or one-third - of its 107 goals. His very presence makes defenders nervous. Now 24, married and a father, Rooney is no longer the short-tempered player he was once. But because Ferguson has tailored so much of his attack around the striker, turning United into something of a one-man team, losing Rooney for any length of time could be hard to compensate for.
United's only other player in double figures this season is Dimitar Berbatov, who has 12 Premier League goals but none in the Champions League. Chelsea defenders, for one, wouldn't be as worried about containing Berbatov as they would be about the more physical and consistently dangerous Rooney.
It was Rooney, with a header in the final, who secured United its only trophy so far this season, the League Cup. But Ferguson probably wouldn't keep his toothbrush in that shiny memento. It is not a competition he cares about passionately like the lucrative Champions and Premier Leagues, for which he needs Rooney to win.
A consolation for Ferguson is that United rarely plays as poorly as it did in Munich. The team lacked the competitive hunger that is a trademark of his sides. It was bullied and sloppy in midfield and defense and would have suffered a much heavier loss had Bayern done better at putting good chances into the net.
A master motivator, Ferguson will tell his players that they are capable of far better and he will be crossing all of his fingers and toes that Rooney is available to score their goals.
Otherwise, selling Ronaldo might not appear to have been such good business.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.