Way out of position for an attacking forward, throwing himself at a task one would more usually expect of a defender, Wayne Rooney hurtled after Ramires Santos do Nascimento, Chelsea's sprightly midfielder better known simply as Ramires.
Nimble Brazilian vs. meaty Englishman, this looked like a race Rooney seemed bound to lose. Not since last April had Rooney started a competitive match for Manchester United, when Alex Ferguson was still in charge of England's most successful club and before suggestions that Rooney wanted to leave developed into a full-blown, summer-long saga. A bit of rust on Rooney, especially this early in the new season, might have been expected, even forgiven.
After 75 minutes of exertion, Rooney was flushed red. Chunky at the best of times, the 27-year-old has in the past _ although, to be fair, seemingly not this summer _ sometimes returned from vacations looking fleshier than normal. Ramires is quick and lithe, a handful for even the swiftest of opponents. He had momentum as he sprinted onto Frank Lampard's pass and dangerously spirited the ball deep into United territory.
But just when Ramires would have wanted to cross to teammates lurking in front of United's goal, Rooney caught up with and got to him. His sliding tackle was magnificent. With an exquisitely timed thrust of his left leg, Rooney pickpocketed the ball from under Ramires, scything him down in the process. Turning defense into attack in the blink of an eye, Rooney then leapt back to his feet with his freshly won prize and, on the run, thumped the ball up field to Robin van Persie, launching a counter-attack that, as it turned out, came to naught, like all other efforts by both teams in this cagey 0-0 draw.
This textbook display of commitment, physicality and soccer intelligence from Rooney produced two immediate thoughts: United would be crazy to sell him, especially to Chelsea, a direct rival for the league title; and if Rooney is bound for London after nine rich and sometimes turbulent years at United, then he is leaving Old Trafford the right way, with his head held high, admirably professional at the end.
So much rubbish, half-truths and outright lies are reported and spoken during soccer's two annual transfer windows when player trades are allowed that it is hard to know when clubs and their managers are talking fact or fiction.
When Ferguson's replacement at United, David Moyes, says Rooney isn't for sale, does he really mean that or is the club simply holding out for more money? Moyes and Rooney have history from two years together at Everton, where Rooney caught Ferguson's eye as a precociously talented teenager and where Moyes built a reputation as an over-achieving manager capable of getting results on a limited budget. In his biography, Rooney said he angrily told Moyes in 2004 that he never wanted to play for him again. This, of course, was long before their destinies crossed again at United.
Could they make a soccer relationship function again now? Rooney's performance on Monday night suggests they could. Moyes played Rooney for the full 90 minutes. Players at other clubs have effectively gone on strike to try to force moves. Rooney presumably could also have found excuses not to play, perhaps telling Moyes he's too distracted by Chelsea's courtship of him to continue to give his all to United. But if his heart is blue, Rooney played against Chelsea like a devoted red. United fans loved his vigor and unstinting labor, filling Old Trafford with chants of "Rooney, Rooney."
Jose Mourinho was impressed.
"This club must be a very special club because in every club in the world, when the player wants to leave, they don't support him. When a player wants to leave they give him a hard time," the Chelsea manager said. "I think probably now he decides that he wants to stay. And if he makes that decision we will be the first to respect that."
Only after the transfer window shuts Sept. 2 should that be believed. Mourinho indicated he wants Rooney to quickly declare if he still desires a move. Given how open Mourinho has been with his affection for the United star, one imagines that the player's representatives must have been playing footsie behind the scenes.
Luring Rooney from United would be a big coup to mark the start of Mourinho's second managerial tenure at Chelsea. Rooney could break Bobby Charlton's record of 249 goals for United if he finishes his career at the club. His strength and bulldog tenacity would add threat and backbone to Chelsea's forward line and give its creative midfielders a proven scorer to aim passes at. Mourinho's decision to start against United without a recognized striker highlighted the attacking weakness in his squad.
For all these reasons _ because he makes United better and would make Chelsea better, too _ Moyes must keep hold of Rooney. Clearly, he's a handful to manage at times, but he keeps showing that he is more than worth the trouble.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester