Norwich on brink as Rooney gamble pays off for Van Gaal
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