There are several keys to World Cup success but none is more important than a talismanic attacking player. For the U.S. national team, that probably means Landon Donovan; for England it almost certainly means Wayne Rooney.
Both had big days on Wednesday. Donovan scored his first Premier League goal, a well-taken one in Everton’s 2-0 victory over Sunderland. Donovan could have had a second goal but for a last ditch clearance by one of Sunderland’s fullbacks.
But the big night out belonged to former Everton star Wayne Rooney (though still reviled by some Everton fans, Rooney has been caught on tape asking for the Everton result as he entered the Man U locker room after a match). For it was Rooney’s goal that sent Manchester United into the Carling Cup final, settling one of the most bitter and exciting clashes in recent memory.
United’s opponent was Manchester City which, after an injection of seemingly unlimited funds, has emerged as a more-than-worthy rival. Indeed, City won 2-1 in the first leg at their ground. Both goals were scored by Carlos Tevez, who became the first player in 30 years to go from one of these clubs to the other after United, for some reason, declined to re-enlist him for this year.
The already charged atmosphere for the second leg at Old Trafford became white-hot after United’s veteran leader Gary Neville criticized the way Tevez had celebrated his goals. Although a number of Man U players greeted Tevez warmly before the match, the match itself featured fierce challenges and plenty of pushing, shoving, and elbowing all over the pitch. Craig Bellamy, at the heart of much of this action, was knocked to the ground when an idiot United fan struck the abrasive Welsh forward in the head with a coin as he went to take a corner kick.
City had dreams of their first Cup final in almost 30 years after a scoreless first half (United has appeared in 21 Cup finals during that span). But United scored almost immediately after the Bellamy incident (it started with a phenomenal cross-field pass from Rooney) and scored again to take a 3-2 lead, on aggregate, with only 20 minutes remaining.
Rooney could have settled things, but missed right in front of City’s goal when it would have been easier to score. Almost immediately thereafter, Tevez found an inch of space in which to score from an unlikely angle. It looked like the match would go to overtime, a prospect most neutrals surely would have welcomed.
But in “stoppage time” (time added to match by virtue of stoppages in play) Rooney headed home the winner from a perfect cross by Ryan Giggs. City had been denied in by far the best match I’ve seen this season.
So what of this summer in South Africa? Barring an injury, it can only be a plus for the U.S. that Donovan is playing regularly in England. And barring an injury, Rooney looks poised to live up to the international-level promise he showed as an 18 year-old at Euro-2004, when he was probably the best attacking player on display.
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