Rooney continues lone title crusade
Man Utd 3
West Ham 0
WAYNE ROONEY produced another match-winning performance for Manchester United as he took his tally for the season to 27 by bagging a double against West Ham.
Michael Owen scored for the first time since that hat-trick at Wolfsburg in December as the Red Devils closed to within a point of Premier League leaders Chelsea.
But Owen's late effort was a mere footnote compared to Rooney's contribution. This was precisely the sort of game which made Ronaldo such an invaluable asset. The Portuguese, so often in his United career, would come to the fore in finely-balanced games, crafting a goal in the blink of an eye, playing the pass few others could see, hitting the corner nobody else could hit.
Ronaldo made a difference. Now, in his absence, so does Rooney. He separates United, the would-be champions, from the ordinary.
Presented with the PFA fans' player of the month award before the game, Rooney has, ever since he joined the club, been United's heart and lungs, his commitment complete, his energy undimmed. The difference this season, though, is that he is now their brain, as well as their brawn. He sets the tempo, he dictates the play, right from the off.
It was his delicate through ball which seemed to hand the impressive Antonio Valencia the chance to open the scoring, to exorcise the ghosts of Saturday lunchtime at Goodison Park, as early as the seventh minute. The Ecuadorian, ever more comfortable in his surrounds, produced an immaculate first touch, but scuffed his shot.
The escape seemed to encourage West Ham. Gianfranco Zola's side, mired in the relegation zone for much of the season but boosted into the heady heights of 13th after consecutive wins going into this game, had arrived at Old Trafford brimming with confidence, the Italian's team selection -- two strikers and the offensively-minded Alessandro Diamanti -- belying his intention to attack.
The visitors were unfortunate not to find their ambition rewarded. Just moments after Rooney, raiding from deep on the left hand side, had been denied a mesmerising goal by James Tomkins, Valon Behrami, set through by the otherwise anodyne Guillermo Franco, fired across Foster's goal.
A minute later, the 'keeper, selected ahead of Edwin van der Sar and Tomasz Kuszczak, found himself flummoxed by Diamanti's shot as it looped wildly off Gary Neville, dropping the ball on the line as Old Trafford, his heart no doubt in his mouth. Foster gathered at the second attempt.
United were limp, loose, as they had been at Goodison to such cost. Darron Gibson tried his luck from long-range three times, but found Green equal to them all. The England international denied Valencia and Dimitar Berbatov, too, but there was no cutting edge to United's play, no swagger, no scythe. Enter Rooney.
First, a bullet of a header from little more than six yards after Berbatov and Valencia crafted the best move of the game. Then, before the break, a quite brilliant flick, swivel and shot which left Green stranded, but landed on the roof of the net.
After it, with the second attack of the half -- Park Ji-Sung had, rather unfortunately, cracked a shot against the bar with the first -- a simple header from a Valencia cross, three yards out. Game over. Rooney fired goalwards from the touchline again minutes later. Had Julien Faubert not been stood on the line, it would have been an incredible finish to a hat-trick.
Instead, Owen grabbed the third after an inspired through ball from Paul Scholes. It was Owen's eighth of the season, only one short of Berbatov's tally. A long way behind Rooney though. And the gap is going to get wider yet.
After the game, United manager Alex Ferguson confirmed that Rio Ferdinand, who did not even make the bench last night, has been ruled out of Sunday's Carling Cup final against Aston Villa with a recurring back injury.