x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

One United goal

Manchester United's greatest teams have been exactly that, but they have always been defined by select groups of players.

Ronaldo, left, and Wayne Rooney have increasingly swapped roles in Manchester United's line-up.
Ronaldo, left, and Wayne Rooney have increasingly swapped roles in Manchester United's line-up.

Manchester United's greatest teams have been exactly that, but they have always been defined by select groups of players. A collaborative effort is invariably remembered for the outstanding individuals. First it was the Busby Babes, then there was George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton immortalised in the Holy Trinity statue at Old Trafford. Eric Cantona overshadowed his contemporaries and a younger generation, Fergie's Fledglings, were a side known for the midfield: David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs.

It they win a second Champions League on Wednesday in Rome and the current crop may be the club's finest side. It is already the best squad: given Sir Alex Ferguson's constant rotation, United's has been a large ensemble cast this season. But two names top the bill - Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. United's brand of R 'n' R provides anything but rest and relaxation for defenders, as Barcelona could discover. The reigning World Player of the Year is often compared with Barcelona's Lionel Messi, but the contrast with Rooney is as instructive.

The duo have long displayed an ability to switch positions, but now there is an element of role reversal. Rooney has adopted a position on the flank while Ronaldo's conversion to a striker continues. The quickest of United's four main forwards, he stretches defences in a way Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez do not. Ronaldo has a predator's mentality and a persistence that means no player has had more shots in the Premier League this season. Goals provide a validation. They are the measure of the substance to ally with his undoubted style.

The 40-metre efforts in the second leg of both the quarter- and the semi-final re-established a reputation as a big-game player. Yet Ronaldo, petulant and posturing, polarises opinion. Rooney, increasingly, does not. The artist with an artisan's ethos is likely to line up on the left on Wednesday, tracking back to assist Patrice Evra in containing Messi. "He's sacrificing part of the game that every forward with talent wants to do and just attack," said Ferguson who has only possessed one forward with the same mentality. "Brian McClair," he added. "He was exactly like that. He would play anywhere."

Both Rooney's attitude and his development have been noted. "It's an improvement you expect from a young player with talent," said his manager. "He came here with certain attributes, but most important was this fantastic hunger and desire. Now there's a real professionalism to combine that combustible nature with control." His new-found role on the left flank, meanwhile, can render him more of a threat, according to his manager, who sees a similarity with his Barcelona counterpart. "When [Thierry] Henry plays as a striker and Wayne plays as a striker, to create space they sometimes drift from the centre out," said Ferguson. "Attacking from out to in can be far more dangerous."

Yet Rooney's other responsibilities can render him a forward who spends his time outside the box. It could be seen as an implicit agreement. The altruistic Rooney does the more selfish Ronaldo's defending, the ruthless Portuguese scores the Englishman's goals. It is not that simple - ignore set-pieces and Rooney has outscored Ronaldo this season - but the greater the differences between United's two leading lights, the more difficult they are to combat.

rjolly@thenational.ae