By Liam Twomey
As long as he is at Old Trafford on Monday evening, sitting glumly on the bench or gazing dispassionately through the glass of a lofty executive box, the cameras will find Wayne Rooney.
The smog surrounding his future has proved thick enough to overshadow even a match between two of England’s best sides, with significant tangible and psychological rewards on offer.
These days Manchester United versus Chelsea is always an event, but Rooney has provided an additional, overwhelming subplot to a fixture never short of significance, and one brought into even sharper focus by Jose Mourinho’s brazen assurance that he would not launch his third bid for the 28-year-old until the game is done.
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“It wasn’t ethically right, but the way he told everyone he was going to bid again for Rooney after Monday’s game was quite funny.
“Mourinho is trying to test Moyes, and maybe unsettle him slightly, though I’d like to think Moyes will laugh off the way Mourinho’s press conference was handled last week.”
Moyes, for all his undoubted qualities, is not Sir Alex Ferguson, the grizzled master of the cutting comment or sly dig, and a man with whom Mourinho wisely chose friendship over strife.
Cascarino thinks the Chelsea boss is feeling out his opponent, but is confident his tentative jabs will have little effect. “He’s not done anything to upset Moyes, although it might have been a bit unsettling this week,” he adds. “Moyes will take it with a pinch of salt and have half a smirk about the way it’s all been handled. I don’t think he’ll want to react.”
But, by the time the first ball is kicked on Monday night, will Rooney have succeeded in hijacking the narrative? “Not at all. Rooney will be at best on the bench, and it won’t be about Rooney on the night. It’ll be about him before the game, very little during and a lot about him afterwards. Moyes might throw a spanner in the works [and play him], but it’s a massive ‘might’.”
Moyes insisted in his own pre-match press conference that he is prepared to start Rooney against his primary suitors, but Cascarino is convinced that scenario is in the interest of no one. “United have basically had nine days to prepare for this game, and after the way they gelled against Swansea it would be a huge shout to drop either one of Van Persie or Welbeck,” he insists.
“Moyes will have been very relieved by the performance against Swansea, especially with his strikers. He must have had chats with Welbeck during the summer, because he got one goal last year. One goal from a player that’s quick, great technically and strong in the air.
“I’m sure Moyes is looking for a lot more from him this season, and those two goals will have made him feel a lot better.”
If Welbeck is capable of ensuring United don’t miss Rooney, Chelsea’s vast array of weapons mean they are in no greater danger. The £30 million signing of Willian has not come in time for the Brazilian to feature, but in Eden Hazard, Oscar, Juan Mata, Kevin De Bruyne, Andre Schurrle and Victor Moses, Mourinho already has a formidable arsenal of pace and creativity, and this, Cascarino believes, will be at the forefront of Moyes’ mind.
“Mourinho always tries to outwit his opponent, and Moyes will be so conscious of that Chelsea trio behind the striker, and he’ll look to negate them to some extent,” he continues. “Moyes was a conservative manager at Everton. I don’t think he can afford to be at United, but he will show a bit of caution in the way he tries to win the game.
“People like Oscar and Hazard can always produce for Chelsea, and a Lampard free-kick can also be the difference. From United’s perspective, you’ve always got the wonder of Van Persie. Tactically, they have so much respect for each other as coaches, but they’ll always be looking for a weakness during the game, or someone they can isolate.”
Rooney aside, the sense remains that, of the two men, Moyes goes into the match under more pressure. All three of the country’s leading clubs have changed their managers this summer but, as Ferguson’s heir, the Scot is the only one also struggling to emerge from a monumental shadow as he shoulders the burden of peerless longevity and achievement.
It is a battle Moyes cannot win on Monday, though a convincing victory on the pitch would be a good start. “It’s going to be a new era,” Cascarino admits. “Everything comes to an end, and the United fans are a bit sceptical about where it’ll all end up. Moyes has got to earn his stripes.
“He did a fantastic job at Everton, achieving a lot at the club without winning things. Now he’s at a club where he has to win things. It’s a new challenge, and he’s got to convince everyone that United are team who will carry on challenging and winning.”
However Moyes fares and regardless of whether Mourinho’s second coming lasts, Chelsea will remain an obstacle. Over the past decade they have been United’s most formidable domestic adversaries, even if a penchant for self-destruction has often undermined their ability to meet on an equal footing. City, too, will continue to provide a potent threat much closer to home.
But Cascarino insists this is no bad thing. “The rivalry has to remain intense,” he insists. “The fans love it because it means you’re a successful team. The hatred that exists between Liverpool and United is there because they have both been so successful. Even though Liverpool haven’t been at that level for a while, it’s still there. We do need it, and the intensity brings a new type of game.”
Tony Cascarino is a football columnist for The Times, which will bring digital subscribers every single Premier League goal this season on mobile and online. Visit www.TheTimes.co.uk/goals for more details
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