Wayne Rooney's troubles overshadowed by Valencia's cruel break
Wayne Rooney brought his problems home last night and, predictably enough, the welcome from his own people was as warm as he could have hoped.
Soon enough, though, the nature of Rooney's difficulties, the fact that the ones that came off the field had been entirely self-created, were put in a stark perspective indeed.
It was provided by the sight of Antonio Valencia being carried off the field on a stretcher with what was later confirmed to be a sickeningly broken ankle. Valencia's crisis occurred where a footballer's career will always be subject to the cruelest of ambushes, and the sense of this brought silence to the crowd.
They watched under a sudden pall of apprehension as the body language of the surrounding players spoke of horror as the man from Ecuador was lifted on to a stretcher, given an oxygen mask and carried from the field.
It was one of those mishaps which from time to time remind you, and, who knows maybe even some of the multi-millionaire players currently rocketing along the fast lane, that in something as fleeting as professional football today's glory is maybe tomorrow's pain.
Before the accident, which came without hard contact from a Rangers player, the fans chanted Rooney's name before gulping back their concern that he had suffered an ankle injury, along with a certain dip in his reputation. They were plainly in a more instantly forgiving mood than his wife Coleen when the first news of his infidelities broke across the nation.
There was, however, another possibility. It was that they had been driven half crazy by the tedium of something that was advertised as the kick-off to another season of the most riveting club competition in world football.
Rooney's fleeting crisis at least provided a degree of morbid curiosity until it was overtaken by Valencia's calamity. The latest worry over Rooney revolved around pained speculation about what else could go wrong on the long trail of misadventure that started when he injured himself in Munich in March.
Fortunately, last night he ran through the scare that came near the end of a first half in which Rangers, a name that used to resonate with pride and aggressive intent, played with such defensive caution that they invited fresh doubts about the validity of an elongated opening phase of a Champions League which is increasingly about revenue rather than authentic competition.
United, though, will have some critical reflections of their own with their failure to threaten serious penetration of a massed defence. No doubt they will go to Ibrox believing that the Rangers need to make some semblance of attack in front of their own fans will create a little more space, a little more opportunity.
Still, this was a crushing failure of nerve and coherence – and even an overwhelming sense of maximum resolve until desperation drove them on in the six minutes of added time.
Until then the overwhelming impression was of a team without the sharpest of touch – or ambition and, oddly enough, no one seemed more tarred with this suspicion than Rooney himself. His mood was no doubt darkened by his failure to exploit the most promising situation of United's night, when he enjoyed a two-to-one advantage on a Rangers defence that, for the first and last time of the night, went truly missing.
Rooney, in the end, opted to pass to his Mexican team-mate Javier Hernandez, but the pass failed – along with the hope that he would be at the heart of one of those nights which made the stadium a working model for a theatre of dreams.
Last night it was only a nightmare of disappearing nerve and coherence, as Rooney failed to ignite in the way he did for England last week.
Rooney came to play at the centre of a great professional trial but soon enough he was engulfed by a wider problem. It was the failure of a whole team to properly connect with each other when confronted by Rangers' bleak solution to their fear of being outplayed by all the superior talent that money can buy.
It was a plan which borrowed heavily from the apparently ageless professionalism of David Weir and the resolve of defenders to run beyond their limits. There was for United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, however, no instinct to salute the dogged resistance mounted by his old club.
His concern was that so soon after losing Premier League ground in a defensive breakdown at the weekend, his team stumbled so badly at the gateway to a Europe which not so long ago appeared to be at its mercy.
That idea seemed like an old memory indeed, which is something Wayne Rooney may wish to consider the next time he forgets that football can be cruel without the need for a helping hand.