What a strange season this has been for United. On Sunday they were humiliated on their own turf by Liverpool, on Wednesday they produced an utterly improbable and unexpected comeback in the Champions League,thanks to hat-trick from Robin Van Persie, who managed to dissipate reports describing him as unhappy, before picking up an injury that could sideline him for the rest of the season
Today they traveled to a traditionally tricky ground for them with a central midfielder filling in at centre-back and were gifted three points thanks to two goals from a player who was on the verge of leaving the club seven months ago, while he now ranks third among the club’s all-time goalscorers.
Rooney’s second, coming after he steered Mark Noble’s into the net, after the West Ham midfielder had diverted Ashley Young’s cross effectively sealed the game with 57 minutes still to play, but the striker’s first will be talked about for a long, long time, for it was a thing of sheer beauty. One which, it has to be said, only few players could dare to attempt.
With just seven minutes gone, Rooney – wearing the armband today in the absence of Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic – received the ball on the halfway line, allowed it to bounce over his head while fending off James Tomkins, before unleashing a swerving strike which caught Adrian off his line and silenced Upton Park.
The comparison with Beckham’s goal against Wimbledon in 1996 were immediate, only partly defused by the fact that Rooney had to make do with Marouane Fellaini hugging him, rather than receive a mere pat on the back from Brian McClair, as Beckham did 18 years ago.
The goal put United on their way to a third consecutive 2-0 win away from home in the league on a pitch where they hadn’t won in the last two visits, but against an opponent that was way too poor to pose any threat to a makeshift back four. West Ham fans might claim to be “Moore than a football club”, but their current crop bears as much resemblance to the club’s glory days as Marouane Fellaini does to Bryan Robson.
West Ham were awful, almost as awful as their bubble-blowing machine they deployed on the pitch before kick-off and almost as awful as their fans, who continue to believe theirs is a big club, one which United could even consider a rival, rather than one to be looked upon with contempt and disdain – particularly for their choice of soundtrack at half-time.
But enough of rambling about the locals, let’s focus on the important things.
The sight of Michael Carrick alongside Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini partnering Darren Fletcher in midfield must prompt many to concede that Wednesday was simply an unexpected surprise, rather than a corner turned, but despite a line-up that would had Fergie’s tombola nodding in approval, United delivered an excellent performance.
Marouane Fellaini saw plenty of the ball and mopped up the midfield area in determined and precise fashion, while Darren Fletcher simply doesn’t look like a man who’s suffered a severe illness and Michael Carrick was excellent in the centre-back alongside Phil Jones, a player who looks to be growing in confidence as each game passes by.
Even Alexander Buttner and Ashley Young, normally everyone’s favourite pantomime villains, conducted themselves relatively well, while the front three left David Moyes with plenty of positives and a few doubts. Rooney was excellent when deployed as main striker, while Juan Mata thrived in his natural role at number 10 and looked a complete different player than the one we’ve had seen so far.
Shinji Kagawa looked determined to make things happen too, though he remains some way short of Mata and Welbeck in terms of impact, to the point where one has to wonder whether RVP’s injury could be a blessing in disguise for Moyes, given that probably for the first time in the season he can deploy his best players in their natural roles, rather than shuffling them around in the hope of finding a magic combination.
A front three without RVP deprives United of a clinical goalscorer, but allows a more fluid attacking approach, one that can bring out the best of Mata, Rooney and Welbeck or Kagawa, a system Moyes must surely stick with ahead of Tuesday night’s derby.
For only the second time this season things were easy, enjoyable and even inspired some optimism. In a campaign of false dawns, this might be the falsest yet, but it could also be another small step in the right direction.