Real Madrid vs. Manchester United: Wayne Rooney Will Be Key in UCL Clash
The Red Devils' striker turned attacking midfielder has been superb this season in his new role at the club, and with plenty of talent around him for United's biggest match of the year so far, expect him to thrive at the Bernabeu.
His success starts and ends with the arrival of Robin van Persie to Manchester, and how the England international has adapted to that change.
No longer is Rooney the go-to striker at the top of the attack; he is the man playing in behind and around Van Persie to complement the Dutch international.
And so far, it's a method that's given great success for United, who are into the round of 16 in the Champions League as well as 12 points clear in the English Premier League. Throw in their FA Cup success and the 2013 treble is still technically alive, although you won't hear anyone within shouting distance of Old Trafford speaking about it just yet.
His recent performance against Everton shows just how far down the field Rooney is currently operating, but also how deadly he can be in central midfield.
Below we see Rooney pick up the ball well behind the attacking line, with both wingers and Van Persie ahead of him.
He plays in a wonderful ball to the Dutchman, who hits the post on his subsequent effort on goal. But the freedom to play the ball in came about because of Rooney dropping back to cover, and the freedom that Van Persie had created for the Englishman to do so.
The same scenario came about on United's second goal, which saw Rooney play a pass to Rafael, who then slipped Van Persie in behind Everton's defence.
In days past, Rooney would have been as high as Van Persie was—waiting for a pass from Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick, but now he is the one distributing the ball and then joining the attacking unit later on when the chance arises.
And as a whole, it's been a great move for everyone involved—Rooney, Van Persie and Manchester United, whose success in 2013 has been largely due to the strength of their attacking unit.
Many thought that the arrival of Van Persie to Old Trafford would hinder Rooney, yet the numbers show that both are thriving together at the same time.
|Robin van Persie||Wayne Rooney|
|Total goals||19 (1st in team)||10 (2nd in team)|
|Total assists||7 (1st in team)||7 (1st in team)|
|Shots per game||3.6 (1st in team)||3.4 (2nd in team)|
|Key passes* per game||1.8 (1st in team)||1.8 (1st in team)|
* Key passes refers to goal-scoring chances created
** Statistics provided via WhoScored.com
Against Real Madrid in the Champions League, Rooney's ability to pop up throughout the midfield and attack has the potential to cause real problems.
Madrid defenders will not want to push too high up the field to mark him, but they also won't want to sit back and allow him the space to run with the ball with wingers outside him and Van Persie ahead—like we saw against Everton.
Rooney is a creative passer of the ball and has a lethal shot also, so he must be covered, but which player covers him and where on the field remains unknown.
Jose Mourinho will have a tough time figuring out a plan to not only cover Van Persie's goal-scoring antics, but keep Rooney under wraps also.
United will likely head to Madrid looking for goals—knowing that even one away goal could prove the difference heading back to Old Trafford for the second leg.
Their defense is sound, but nowhere near good enough to simply sit back and play for a 0-0 draw; Madrid's attack is too powerful to try and shut out.
The Red Devils' best plan will be to continue to look for goals on attacking raids by getting the ball to Rooney early. Get Van Persie ahead of him and the speed of Antonio Valencia outside of him and watch the attacking brilliance of United in full swing.
If Sir Alex Ferguson's side can get that going, expect them to seriously challenge Madrid in the first leg—even playing away from home at the Bernabeu.
But it all starts and ends with Rooney.
Who will triumph in United's Champions League match vs. Real Madrid?
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