Nor­wich on brink as Rooney gam­ble pays off for Van Gaal

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - PREMIERE LEAGUE - By Jim White at Car­row Road

The crowd ar­riv­ing for this crit­i­cal fix­ture had found a card­board clap­per on their seats be­fore kick-off. The idea had been to en­cour­age them to cre­ate a Le­ices­ter-like at­mos­phere of noisy ex­pec­ta­tion, the fuel to drive Nor­wich to three points in the Premier League sur­vival bat­tle.

Ninety min­utes later, the clap­pers had been torn to shreds and, as the fi­nal whis­tle sounded to con­firm de­feat, were ev­ery­where be­ing tossed into the air in re­signed ac­cep­tance.

As a metaphor for one of the most mis­er­able af­ter­noons in Nor­wich’s re­cent history, the for­lorn shower of torn-up clap­pers could not have been more per­ti­nent. De­feat at home by a mod­est Manch­ester United had brought to the club’s long-suf­fer­ing sup­port­ers con­fir­ma­tion of what they had long recog­nised: theirs was a team des­tined for the drop.

“It’s not over, but it’s a ma­jor blow,” ad­mit­ted their man­ager, Alex Neil, who knew, once Sun­der­land had beaten Chelsea later in the af­ter­noon, that his chances of still be­ing in charge of a Premier League team by next week­end were now marginally smaller than Sadiq Khan’s of re­ceiv­ing a con­grat­u­la­tory text from Don­ald Trump.

United were there for the tak­ing and his team com­pre­hen­sively failed to seize their mo­ment.

“That is what the big teams do,” said Neil. “They take their chances and they don’t make mis­takes.” It is a sim­ple enough recipe for suc­cess. But, for Nor­wich, it is one that has proven en­tirely elu­sive.

For Louis van Gaal, vic­tory main­tains his out­side chance of Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion. It was all the more sat­is­fy­ing be­cause of the gam­ble he took ahead of kick-off, de­cid­ing to rest Mar­cus Rash­ford, the striker whose goals have ef­fec­tively kept him in em­ploy­ment un­til the end of the sea­son.

“In a game, he is not do­ing things any more he was do­ing in his first and sec­ond match,” was his ex­pla­na­tion for leav­ing the young­ster at home in Manch­ester. “At first, you deny it. But maybe it’s tired­ness.”

The risky na­ture of his strat­egy was starkly ex­posed when An­thony Mar­tial felt his calf mus­cle tighten in the warm-up. Stripped of the two pacy young­sters who had reignited his sea­son, sud­denly the man­ager was obliged to use Wayne Rooney as his lone striker. And the cap­tain, who has en­joyed his new role as a mid­field play­maker since re­turn­ing from in­jury, let­ting Mar­tial and Rash­ford do his run­ning for him, was not en­thused by the switch.

“I don’t think he was very happy with me when I de­cided to put him in the striker’s po­si­tion, but he has to do it,” said Van Gaal, who had ex­pected to use him as “a left-sided No 10”.

As it so of­ten has this sea­son, hap­pen­stance came to Van Gaal’s res­cue. With barely 20 min­utes re­main­ing, Rooney ex­ploited the mis­take that through­out the sea­son has been wait­ing to hap­pen in the Nor­wich de­fence, leav­ing a floun­der­ing Sébastien Bas­song lead­en­footed, drift­ing into the box and, with a deft re­verse pass, set­ting up Juan Mata for the de­ci­sive strike.

“He played a great ball,” said Mata of his cap­tain. “Wayne is im­por­tant for us no mat­ter which po­si­tion he plays in. For me, he does not have any­thing to prove. He is a great player and will al­ways be a great player.

“He can play as a striker, a winger, a mid­fielder as he has shown in the past few weeks. I would imag­ine that Roy Hodg­son is very happy with the po­si­tions that Wayne can play in. Also with the ex­pe­ri­ence he can bring to the dress­ing room.”

His col­league An­der Her­rera, who was drafted in to re­place Mar­tial at the last mo­ment, was equally com­pli­men­tary about the cap­tain’s in­flu­ence.

“He is a world-class player,” the Spa­niard said. “He is not self­ish ei­ther in the team or in the dress­ing room. He is a very good cap­tain and you know that some­times big play­ers, world-class play­ers, can be self­ish. Wayne is not. That is very im­por­tant.”

It is a strength of char­ac­ter that will be of max­i­mum ben­e­fit over the fi­nal fort­night of United’s sea­son. With Manch­ester City draw­ing against Arse­nal, their next match, bring­ing down the cur­tain on Up­ton Park, now be­comes one which will de­fine their sea­son.

For Nor­wich, mean­while, Wed­nes­day’s home game against Wat­ford has taken on a very dif­fer­ent tex­ture. It now looks likely to be Car­row Road’s last Premier League oc­ca­sion for at least 15 months. The card­board clap­pers have sounded the death knell of this cam­paign.

Up to his old tricks: Wayne Rooney leads the United line at Nor­wich

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