Can Manchester United Risk Playing Wayne Rooney Against Chelsea?
David Moyes faces an all-too-familiar predicament on Monday.
It's called the Wayne Rooney predicament.
Having been dogged by transfer rumors surrounding his star attacker all summer, Moyes has—so far—done well to keep the Rooney transfer saga under wraps.
He received a little bit of flack when he ruled him out "injured" at the start of the season, only for him to start for England later that week, but Moyes has done a good job so far. Moyes has constantly reiterated his desire to keep Rooney, and allowed the Englishman to show in his second-half cameo against Swansea City that he still has an important role to play for the Red Devils.
However, that predicament will take a serious step forward on Monday when the defending champions line up against Jose Mourinho's Chelsea at Old Trafford.
The Blues have been Rooney's biggest aggressors this summer, with Mourinho openly admitting to interest in the star attacker, as reported by Sky Sports. He also made it clear that, regardless of the result, the West London club would be looking at making another offer for Rooney after the game, as BBC Sport reported—putting Moyes in a rather difficult position as to how (and if) he should use Rooney.
It might not seem that much of a predicament, but it is for United. And given how important Rooney can be to them, it's one that they cannot afford to get wrong.
Moyes spoke earlier in the week of his desire to play Rooney against Chelsea.
Those comments most likely mean that he will play in some variety (although he could be pulling a Sir Alex Ferguson-esque smokescreen). The question just remains as to whether Moyes goes all-out with Rooney like there was no talk of his playing future at all, or whether he holds him back somewhat—similar to what he did at the Liberty Stadium last weekend.
However, the bigger predicament lies in Rooney's performance on the day.
If the forward plays well in front of Mourinho, you'd have to think that "the Special One" will be even more keen to try and bring him to Stamford Bridge this summer.
Manchester United fans would also likely grow in their affirmation of him and could respond unkindly to Moyes' potential decision to sell Rooney in the end. After all, there's a reason why Arsenal didn't play Robin van Persie before they sold him to the Red Devils, and there's a reason why Gareth Bale has been out "injured" as his seemingly inevitable move to Real Madrid closes.
Moyes won't want Rooney playing well if he's going to leave this summer.
That would be just salt in the wound.
Moyes also potentially stands to lose at the other end of Rooney's potential performance—that is, if the striker delivers another sub-standard showing.
Say he starts for United, has a largely ineffective 60 to 65 minutes against the likes of Frank Lampard and David Luiz, and is subbed off by Moyes for Shinji Kagawa—who comes on and sets up two goals for Robin van Persie. It's a hypothetical, I know, but the point remains the same.
Mourinho will naturally think that United are more willing to listen to offers for Rooney and are starting to prepare for life without their striker-turned-midfielder.
The former Real Madrid manager's interest in Rooney largely lends itself to the thinking that he can make Rooney even better than what he already is. He obviously still sees improvement to be found in Rooney, and—perhaps egotistically—thinks he is the best man to evoke that untapped potential. Should Rooney look disinterested playing at Old Trafford in the system and formation that Moyes desires, that preconception would simply be reinforced in the mind of Mourinho.
However, the predicament lies for Moyes in that as much as he stands to lose from Rooney's potentially good or bad performance on Monday, he also stands to gain.
If he plays well, the new United manager will simply have his assumptions confirmed that he was right to try and hang on to Rooney. If he plays poorly, he'll also have a subtle thought that thinks other clubs might not be as interested in Rooney as they once were.
After all, a sulking striker isn't an appealing transfer target.
Just ask clubs about Luis Suarez.
Thus with both Moyes and Mourinho both likely to feel vindicated by however Rooney performs on Monday, the thought of not playing him at all does have merit.
Obviously it would hurt the Red Devils on the field (given that Rooney is still a very good player, regardless of his transfer situation) but in the long-term interests of the club, it might be a move worth making. Yet still, I just can't see it happening.
I can't see Moyes starting Rooney on the bench against Chelsea.
The Red Devils' boss was able to not play Rooney in preseason given the fact he was actually injured. He was able to get away with it against Swansea—to a large extent—because he did eventually introduce him as a substitute and the player's body language and non-celebration became a much bigger story in the end than whether he started the game or not.
Moyes won't get away with it a third time, you get the feeling he won't want to. After all, this game against Chelsea is his biggest test since taking charge of United.
Coming up against Mourinho—the master of the mind games and managing his team perfectly—makes it only bigger for Moyes. He won't want to slip up against a man who will likely become his nemesis this year, and he'll know that for United to be seriously considered in the title race this year, they cannot afford to drop points to Mourinho's men—especially after Manchester City lost this week.
Moyes is a fighter, and he'll want to come out swinging against Mourinho, who already baited him in comments made to The Guardian. When Mourinho was asked if Moyes was at fault for Rooney's unhappiness in Manchester, the Portuguese replied "Of course."
Playing Rooney—Mourinho's biggest target—would be one strong first punch.
In addition to making United's starting team as strong as it could be, playing Rooney would be a not-so-subtle hint to Mourinho that he isn't anywhere near close to convincing United to sell their star player. He would be directly flaunting something he can't have.
"He's still ours," would be the unwritten statement from Moyes.
And as far as Rooney's perception of the move goes, you'd have to think it would be a positive thing. Here's United in their biggest game of the season so far in a match with so much riding on it, and Moyes has turned to Rooney as a must-have option. That could only help reduce Rooney's doubts about being an important player to the Red Devils this season and about Moyes actually wanting him at all.
So yes, I'd expect Rooney to play—and start—against Chelsea.
There's obviously an argument to be made for Moyes leaving him out of the team in order to try and protect him before deadline day, but I can't see it happening.
Moyes is simply too much of a fighter and far smarter than what he lets on.
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