Rooney's return caps perfect day for United
Man Utd 2 Wigan 0
It is hard to imagine how the afternoon could have been made any easier for Wayne Rooney. His comeback was against Wigan, who, over the years, have acted as Manchester United's sacrificial lambs, with little jars of mint sauce tied around their necks.
They had never earned so much as a point against United and, in his 11 previous games against them, Rooney had found the net nine times. Also, for most of his 34 minutes on the pitch, Wigan had nine men.
Rooney came on as a sub to a level of applause that was acceptable but no more; and the first song he heard was for the man who was brought on with him, Paul Scholes, who is as unlikely to be photographed dining on chicken nuggets and champagne in Dubai as he is to issue a statement criticising his club's ambition. Old Trafford was quite prepared to remove the black mark against Rooney's name, but they wanted the erasure to show.
The real ovation, however, was reserved for news of Chelsea's defeat by Birmingham. Without United finding any real rhythm this season, only goal difference now separates them from Chelsea. Alex Ferguson, typically, thought his men should have used that half an hour when they had two more men to erode the champions' remaining advantage.
"It will settle him down and remind him he is at the right club," his manager said of Rooney's return. "It was a quiet comeback. He will start against Rangers in the Champions League. That will be the perfect game for him."
In one sense, this was the right match for Rooney to return. Before kick-off, the tannoys at Old Trafford announced that it was five years since the death of George Best and that members of his family had gathered here to mark the occasion.
In his biography of Matt Busby, A Strange Kind of Glory, Eamon Dunphy, emphasised the difference between George and Georgie Best, the footballer and the stuff of celebrity. You could say the same of his natural successor; there is Wayne Rooney and there is Wazza.
Of all the comments directed at Rooney, Ferguson's statement delivered aptly from the absolutist state that is Qatar -- that there is nobody at Manchester United more important than the manager -- should have sunk in the deepest. Dimitar Berbatov, dropped even from the bench here after his insipid display against Aston Villa, might have reflected upon it, too. Had he been a cricketer, you would have said Rooney played himself in.
The passes were usually short rather than flamboyant. Of his two chances, one was a header from a deep, superbly-judged cross from Rafael da Silva that was tipped over the bar; a shot from the edge of the six-yard area finished comfortably in Ali al-Habsi's arms.
Javier Hernandez, who has taken up the slack left by Rooney's injury, did not have the same rust encrusting his boots. His seventh goal of the season was created by the same sort of deep cross from Da Silva that Rooney nodded over. The young Mexican's header did not miss.
With only eight outfield players left and a quarter of an hour remaining, those few who had travelled from Wigan, which technically if not spiritually is part of Greater Manchester, might have wondered 'How many?' They would have been relieved by the answer.
Wigan boss Roberto Martinez would not comment on the dismissals of Antolin Alcaraz and Hugo Rodallega. Alcaraz was shown a second yellow for a late scythe at Darren Fletcher while the Colombian was given a straight red for a studs-up tackle on Da Silva, which will earn him a three-match ban Wigan can ill afford.
Ferguson felt the visitors had been aggressive from the start. "Wigan tested the referee throughout, no doubt about that. But we had a lot of the ball without doing anything with it. We seem to be playing our best football in the final 20 minutes. We need more quickness in our play, especially in the first half. We could have had five or six easily, but had you said: 'Would you take being joint top with Chelsea?' I would have said yes."
Manchester United have not lost their sense of timing and emphasised it when, in first-half stoppage-time, Park Ji-Sung swung over a wonderful cross, and Patrice Evra met it to head in his first goal in three and a half years.
Evra joked that he would celebrate by buying Park a Christmas present. He suggested a car, demonstrating it is not just Rooney who lives in a Marie Antoinette world.