Cristiano Ronaldo will be sending Jobi McAnuff a thank-you text message Monday evening, if not a gift basket.
McAnuff, the Reading midfielder who gave his side the faintest of hopes when his 81st-minute goal cut Manchester United’s lead in half during Monday’s FA Cup contest at Old Trafford, was also responsible for Phil Jones premature exit, and for that Ronaldo will surely be grateful.
Jones had more than a bit to do with minimizing the Real Madrid attacker’s time on the ball when the Red Devils visited the Bernabeu in the first leg of their Champions League clash with the Spanish champions last week, and if he is unavailable for the return match two weeks from now, it could mean an undesired lineup change for United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Jones, who was making just his 15th appearance of the season due to a succession of injuries, lay on the pitch in some discomfort following McAnuff’s tackle in the 38th minute and was replaced by Nani four minutes later, having required help getting off the field. He left Old Trafford in crutches and wearing a protective boot.
For a young player with a history of extended layoffs, Monday’s ankle injury is just the latest in a string of disappointments. That it came when he had seemed close to nailing down a regular place will make the situation all the more devastating to the 20-year-old (he turns 21 on Thursday), and his absence will give Ferguson something to think about with the Madrid match looming.
After testing Jones in a marking role against Everton’s Marouane Fellaini on February 10, Ferguson tasked the versatile England international with keeping an eye on Ronaldo three days later in the Spanish capital. Ronaldo scored once in a 1-1 draw, but Jones earned rave reviews for largely keeping the former United superstar on the periphery.
Were Jones to be absent for the return leg on March 5, Ronaldo would almost certainly enjoy more freedom at Old Trafford than he did at the Bernabeu. That is, unless Ferguson tweaked a lineup that was likely to be similar—if not identical—to the one that got such a good result from the first leg.
Tom Cleverley, albeit not as sound defensively as Jones, could come in for his teammate in a like for like replacement alongside Michael Carrick, although Ferguson could change the look of his team entirely by introducing Antonio Valencia.
The winger’s inclusion would allow both Carrick and one of Cleverley, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs to sit more centrally while he tracked Ronaldo down the flank. And if the Portugal captain spent more of his time in the middle than on the left, as he did during the first leg, Valencia could devote his energies to tracking Madrid left-back Fabio Coentrão, whose wide play allows Ronaldo the freedom move into the center.
That these options will be spinning through Ferguson’s head fully two weeks before the rematch speaks to just how important Jones has become to United in so short a time. And no matter what Ferguson opts to do should Jones be unavailable, it will, without question, be very much his Plan B.
For that, Ronaldo will be thankful, indeed.