Neil Humphreys: Drop Bruno and save season, United
Forget Manchester Derby, shattered star needs to rest
Manchester United's greatest asset also represents the club's most telling weakness. Their world revolves around Bruno Fernandes.
When he stops, the lights go out.
United's creative conduit is running on empty, forcing manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to ponder a tricky dilemma.
|MAN CITY||MAN UNITED|
Should he rest his most accomplished footballer against England's most accomplished football team?
The Manchester Derby kicks off in the early hours of Monday morning (Singapore time), a contest between the sublime and the shattered.
Pep Guardiola boasts the financial resources of a small nation. Solskjaer is stuck with a jaded line-up that depends on the ingenuity of an exhausted artist.
For a few weeks now, Fernandes has looked less threatening than a retiree sipping tea in his slippers. He desperately needs a rest.
The Fernandes who plodded through another tedious, goalless draw yesterday morning - this time at Crystal Palace - was barely there. Mind and body conspired against him.
That Fernandes would have a similarly negligible impact at the Etihad in the Manchester Derby. Solskjaer must be sorely tempted to give the Portuguese maverick the night off or at least use him as an impact sub.
But the cautious manager knows the risks involved. Before the Palace snooze, Fernandes had been involved in a staggering 40 goals in 40 English Premier League games (23 goals and 17 assists).
It's not straying into the realm of hyperbole to suggest that Fernandes secured both Champions League football and Solskjaer's job for another season. He was halfway to repeating the trick when fatigue took hold.
He lost possession 10 times against Palace. He was slow, making United even slower. They mustered just one shot on target.
That cannot happen in the Manchester Derby. Fernandes' weariness has contributed to three successive goalless draws, a fourth draw in five games and no goals in almost five hours of football.
Manchester City will brutally punish such inertia. In recent weeks, their opponents have either parked buses, counter-attacked or pressed high and gone for broke and achieved the same result on every occasion. They all lost.
If United turn up with their one-man band out of tune, it'll get ugly. A goalless draw might seem like a dream result in comparison.
But Fernandes has been spared serious criticism and rightly so. This unrelenting, unforgiving season hits the good guys hardest. Those who build their games on intensity and sudden bursts of dynamism are suffering the most now.
As the English winter edged towards spring, pulses slowed rather than quickened. The repetitive slog of games every three days inside empty stadiums is understandably taking its toll.
No one else in a United jersey has replicated Fernandes' eagerness to surge forward at every opportunity... not even Fernandes himself.
His play feels fragmented. The speed of thought, the explosive turn of pace and the quick pass are not quite there. He's lost and deserves a reprieve.
But he may not get it.
United's set-up depends upon Fernandes' ability to play between the lines and lead their rare counter-attacks, an approach that has served Solskjaer well since his playmaker's arrival.
But the over-reliance on one footballer was painfully obvious at Palace, where Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood never seriously threatened and Edinson Cavani was left isolated for the most part.
Solskjaer may believe he has no alternative but to unleash his drained talisman against City's unstoppable trophy hoarders, but at what cost?
The Red Devils are not in competition with City for anything other than those intangible bragging rights, which often seem to mean more to pundits than fans. United fans want Champions League football.
A top-four spot won't be dependent upon beating the noisy neighbours, but on the flurry of fixtures that follow. AC Milan, twice, West Ham United, Leicester City in the FA Cup, Brighton, Tottenham and Burnley will be faced in a month.
Those league games need to be won. An absent Fernandes, either literally or spiritually, is no good to anyone, particularly to a coach with no obvious Plan B.
United can either have a tired Fernandes for the Manchester Derby or a rested and recharged Fernandes for the rest of the season.
They can't have both, which leaves Solskjaer facing one of the toughest decisions of his coaching career.