Players with Most to Prove for Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League
Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Rafael, Michael Carrick, Shinji Kagawa and Antonio Valencia were all abysmal in the clash against Real Madrid in the first leg at Santiago Bernabeu.
Yet, despite Real Madrid's continuous probing, Manchester United managed to hold on to a draw. More importantly, United managed to score a precious away goal. The goal means that United are in the driving seat for the return leg at Old Trafford.
However, if United are to progress and try to make a bid for the trophy, some of the key players need to play their part and prove that they are really world-class material.
With Chris Smalling and Phil Jones both sidelined with injuries at the start of the season, Rafael was bestowed with the opportunity to feature as the first-choice right-back. Needless to say, he had been exceptional at the role.
In a recent interview, Jonny Evans hailed Rafael as the team-mate who had impressed him the most.
I actually think Rafael has done really well. He has shown real maturity. His brother has gone out on loan now and it’s probably given him a lot more responsibility. Because of the injuries, too, there hasn’t been much competition for him at right back so he has really stepped into the position and made it his own.
Often guilty last season of bursting forward too often and failing to track back properly, Rafael had improved tremendously and looks composed and assured for the most part.
However, signs of his performances from last season began to show. For all the talk of his improvement, Rafael looked naïve and was turned inside out, drawn out of position and went head-burst into needless challenges.
In the return leg, he needs to step up his game and not be drawn into needless challenges. Often he looked to be trying too hard, seeking desperately to rise to the occasion. He just needs to be reassured to play in a composed, calm manner—perhaps he can take lessons from Jonny Evans.
Michael Carrick has been in the form of his season this year. Impeccable distribution coupled with a resolute defensive attitude has molded Carrick into a beloved figure at Old Trafford this season.
In the first leg, he was excellent—but only defensively. He made a number of key interceptions, shielded his back four well and tackled with precision. But he could not distribute well. While his counterpart, Xabi Alonso, sprayed the ball around with accuracy, Carrick lacked the conviction to make long passes and even his short passing was below par.
In my opinion, Carrick needs to be able to grow in confidence and be able to provide accurate long balls and some key passes. Hopefully, in the return leg, he can play a bigger part in the attacking play.
Too often, Wayne has been criticized for failing to appear in the biggest stages—the World Cup, the Euros and even the European Cups. He did work tirelessly, and on many occasions was even behind the full-back.
He tried to get the ball across to Robin van Persie; however, with the midfield packed, he had difficulty reaching the other United players.
With both teams employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, Wayne Rooney seemed to be the most hurt by it. His attacking contributions were limited. Nevertheless, Rooney has been deployed in that position before and has performed admirably.
Either Madrid were too strong, or Rooney did not have a great game.
Most likely, a combination of both.
Kagawa could have been the most dangerous offensive threat for United, but he simply did not receive the ball enough. His positioning and runs were fantastic, but the service to him was not there.
And on the few occasions where he had the opportunity to split the defense up, his first touch let him down.
At Dortmund (and the Bundesliga), he was one of the most feared orchestrators around, and few could rival his ability. At United, injuries and squad rotation have hurt his playing time. But he needs to seize the opportunities when bestowed with them.
Robin van Persie
The Dutchman’s performance was reminiscent of the ones he put on at the Euros last year. Any other given day and he would have coolly slotted the ball past the opposition keeper but his tame shot was cleared off the line by Xabi Alonso. Although he did not have a bad game, at these big stages, such chances are few and far between.
A team cannot win big-games on mediocre displays by their star performers, and Van Persie needs to convert such opportunities.
From the charismatic winger of last season, Valencia has become far too predictable this season. He needs to seriously step up his play.
Firstly, he needs to provide enough width on the right flank. Secondly, he should combine well with his full-back, make one-two and penetrate. Lastly, his crosses need to be more accurate.
Going to the Bernabéu is extremely difficult, and a draw should be considered a worthy result. Surprisingly, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and David de Gea were all exceptional. If United are to progress further in the Champions League, the key players need to play their part and rival their domestic form.
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