A Partizan Belgrade ultra surges forward close to where players are leaving the ramshackle stadium after last Thursday’s game between Partizan and Manchester United. A dozen ultras have manoeuvred themselves into a position where there’s only a temporary crush barrier between them and where the players will walk from the stadium to the team coach. Well-built men clad in black t-shirts, black shorts and trainers look curious rather than overly aggressive, but there’s always one. Police in riot gear grab him, push him up against a wall and force the others back and out of the stadium. They’ll now not see the Manchester United squad depart.
Some United players are no strangers to such scenes. Argentines Sergio Romero and Marcos Rojo have experienced passion and aggression from being kids. They stood on the terraces amid the most original, edgy and exciting fan culture in the world. Rojo’s family still goes to games with the Estudiantes ultras, while Romero is a Racing man – and very proud of the atmosphere their fans create in a stadium known as ‘the Cylinder’. It’s so loud that it’s not even fair to compare it to a Premier League equivalent.
Life in Manchester to them seems positively calm – and that’s exactly the environment in which they want to raise their young families. Last Thursday was a rare night when both Rojo and Romero started a game for United, and both were fine as United won a first away game in seven months. It’s plausible that both will start on Wednesday at Chelsea in the Carabao Cup too.
“We played very intelligently tonight,” Romero told FourFourTwo after the game in Belgrade. “It’s a difficult place to play. The atmosphere was difficult for us with fans loud and sentimental – and similar to Argentina. They sang all night. The pitch was not in good condition so it was a little harder for both teams.”
Despite sustained pressure from the Serbs, Romero kept a clean sheet – as he had against Astana in a previous game. He hopes to play against his former club AZ at Old Trafford in December; hopes United will be through to the knockout stage by then.
Argentina’s former No.1 is an excellent No.2 for United. He’s experienced and, in his fifth season at the club where he has a contract until 2021, is used to being around far bigger names than his team-mates at Old Trafford – but he’s still committed. United have Dean Henderson on loan at Sheffield United, who now boast the best defence in the league. Henderson needs games in a way Romero doesn’t.
Romero was the oldest United player in a very young team in Belgrade. Brandon Williams, 19, and James Garner, 18, were the youngest. Williams won man of the match in his first European start.
“Brandon is a boy who works so hard,” said Romero. “He trains well. He doesn't give presents to any other player. Every time he had the ball he wanted to move forward and he won the penalty which helped us win the game. We have some very good young players. Some have shown it, others are waiting.
“The older players have to help them but Brandon has the quality to play for United. It takes time to adapt – a young player cannot be expected to play at a high level every week.”
And, while he’d like it to be different, Romero – with 47 United games to his name – also cannot expect to play every week.
“Of course it’s always best to play all the time but I’ve adapted to my reality and I’m always ready,” he explains. The man who kept four clean sheets in his first five games for United in August 2015 wishes he was No.1, but has a big respect for David de Gea and the pair of Spanish speakers get on.
“I feel that the coach trusts me,” he stresses. Romero is known as ‘Chiquito’ – the ‘short one’ – because in comparison to his brother, a professional basketball player called Diego, he is relatively small. He rates the Europa League. “In 2016/17 I played in a lot of games when we won this tournament. It was special for me, it was great for my confidence. Ole is the same with me; I feel that and I always want to play.”
The next Copa America is in Argentina and Romero is determined to keep adding to his caps, but he’s lost his place in the national side. Esteban Andrada of Boca Juniors, Franco Armani of River Plate, Agustin Marchesin of Porto or Emiliano Martinez of Arsenal have all featured since Romero last played for the national team in a 1-0 defeat to Brazil a year ago. He’s not played in any of Argentina’s 15 games since.
“It’s always my dream to play for Argentina – it’s my country – and I’ve done that for more than 10 years. There are some very good goalkeepers in my country and I will do what I’ve always done and work hard for every opportunity.”
Marcos Rojo knows how he feels, though his absence from the national team was because of injury. Rojo is back playing for his country and for his club too.
“Marcos has adapted very well,” says Romero. “He played against Liverpool when he only found out just before kick-off. He’s played left-back, centre-back and played in a defensive three or four. It’s not easy to do that but he’s done it well.”
Romero has done too, and while Manchester United have many concerns, their goalkeeping situation is not one of them. There will be no gasps if Romero is chosen to play at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, and no player is more determined to do well for United in the cups – since that’s where he’ll most likely be playing this season.
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