Fans' flood of love finally ends Rooney goal drought
Manchester Utd 3 West Ham 0
BESEECHED by the Stretford End faithful to make his breakthrough, Wayne Rooney finally delivered. After 18 hours and 34 minutes of frustration, the Manchester United striker had relief written across his face as he dispatched the penalty that broke his goal drought.
In the comforting surrounds of Old Trafford, Rooney felt the love once more. Garlanded with two club awards as the player of last season before kick-off, he suddenly remembered what he had done to deserve such affection. This was not quite the exhausting-to-watch shift he was putting in at the same time last year, but with his goal, straightforward as it was, a burden visibly lifted.
He could be thankful that the component parts of United's title challenge dovetailed so slickly against a supine West Ham. Nani and Dimitar Berbatov, once dismissed as passengers in this side, both weighed in with goals in a highly impressive victory.
Paul Scholes, too, a fact no doubt noted rather forlornly by Fabio Capello, after the midfielder's reluctance to return to international duty. Sustaining his age-defying form at the start of the season, the 35-year-old did not even need to look up before feeding the ball effortlessly to the feet of Nani and Ryan Giggs on the wings.
A figure less on Capello's radar was Robert Green -- still agonised by that mistake at the World Cup -- but the West Ham goalkeeper was at least more assertive, confidently cutting off a Patrice Evra cross before it could reach Berbatov.
The Bulgarian would have done better to seek the service of Scholes, who found him with a sublime cross with the outside of the right boot. A pity, then, that the struggling striker could only crash his shot against the frame of Danny Gabbidon.
It was left to Rooney, galvanised by the crowd, to paper over Berbatov's failings. Embarking on a typical sideways dart across the box, he unleashed his first venomous drive of the evening from 20 yards, but Green saved well.
Signs of an understanding between the odd couple up front were encouraging, and Rooney ought to have buried a volley when Berbatov nodded a cross back across goal. Fortunately, United were resisting a supine West Ham very capably; indeed, their only concerns stemmed from lapses in their own defence, as when Edwin van der Sar was forced to divert an errant Jonny Evans header.
On a night ripe for scoring, the mercurial Nani was keen to contribute. Among the curious statistics doing the rounds, besides the length of Rooney's fallow period, was that United had not lost the last 28 games when the Portuguese had been in the side. He showed his intent soon enough with a swerving free-kick that just looped wide, and one ferocious strike that Green did well to push against the near post.
West Ham's agitation boiled over, first in Mark Noble's lunge on Rooney, then in Matthew Upson's upending of Berbatov. Carlton Cole made little headway all game, and was emphatically bundled to the floor under the strength of Nemanja Vidic's marking. Thus did the stage belong solely to Rooney.
The pleas of innocence by Jonathan Spector were in vain as the right-back paid a heavy price for his trip on Ryan Giggs. Rooney, a picture of concentration, stepped forward to wrong-foot Green from the spot and register his first goal for six months. Berbatov, knowing that the first scorer here should have been him, was unconvincing in his congratulations.
United then switched to their familiar mode of remorseless pressure. Darren Fletcher wrought more havoc in the West Ham box with a crisp 25-yard attempt and Nani, chasing on to Giggs's through-ball, should have fashioned a better finish. But Nani would not be thwarted so easily. Seeming even more energised in the second half, he exchanged a neat give-and-go with Rooney and fired in a gorgeous goal from the edge of the area.
The winger, having flattered to deceive in his two years at Old Trafford, could be on the cusp of a memorable campaign. Berbatov, likewise, did not wish to be a wallflower as the United party started. Again Nani was the pivot in a clinical United move, clipping the ball across to Berbatov at the far post, where the striker coiled his body acrobatically and let fly with an agile volley.
No one looked happier than Alex Ferguson, who saw fit to replace the man of the moment with Michael Owen. Tentative in his running, Owen looked like he could use some advice from Rooney on how to restore confidence in an instant.