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Rooney ahead of rest

AS MUCH AS Chelsea will curse Wayne Rooney, he does provide an antidote to the unedifying headlines that continue to dog two of their players.

This wonderfully gifted footballer is doing his best not only to ensure that Manchester United remain firmly in the hunt for a record fourth successive title but offers Fabio Capello positivity amid a sea of negativity surrounding John Terry and Ashley Cole.

Rooney's 26th and 27th goals of the season moved United to within a point of Chelsea, the leaders, and gave even more credence to Alex Ferguson's claim that his striker will become a "complete player, ready to join the distinguished band of United legends" if he maintains this form.

Michael Owen rubbed West Ham United's noses in it with a lovely finish, but this was another night on which to salute his successor as the golden boy of English football.

It was not all good news for United as Anderson limped off just 16 minutes into his first appearance for five weeks with a knee injury and the absence of Rio Ferdinand, who was not even on the substitutes' bench despite completing a four-match suspension for violent conduct, will set tongues wagging about the Carling Cup final against Aston Villa at Wembley on Sunday.

It has been a strange past week for United. The exhilarating 3-2 win over AC Milan in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie eight days ago showcased many enduring qualities -- pace and poise on the counter-attack, boundless energy, an iron will -- not to mention the talents of Rooney.

For all the delight he took from victory at San Siro, though, Ferguson will have focused on the defensive lapses that, on another night, might have resulted in more than a couple of breaches of their goal, and which clearly offered Everton all the encouragement they needed at Goodison Park en route to a resounding 3-1 win on Saturday. Five goals shipped in two matches is hardly the stuff of which champions are made, but despite the blunders at the back, Ferguson resisted the temptation to pair Ferdinand with Nemanja Vidic for the first time in almost four months.

Instead, Wes Brown, who has looked haphazard of late, partnered Vidic, making his first appearance after eight weeks out with a calf problem that had really tested the patience of the manager.

The Serbia defender may have had something to prove amid the growing belief that he has had his head turned by the idea of a move to the continent in the summer, but not as much as Anderson, another facing a decidedly uncertain future at Old Trafford.

The Brazil midfield player admitted as much this week, but any hopes he had of making an impression on Ferguson last night were expunged as he limped off with a knee injury.

Rooney, surprise surprise, ensured that United emerged from the half-time interval sporting a 1-0 lead. United had the better of a subdued opening period that only really sparked into life when the England forward finished a fine counter-attack in the 38th minute before almost doubling his team's advantage with a typically audacious moment of individual brilliance.

Ferguson talked about him getting close to being the "complete player" and his headed finish was reflective of a man brimming with confidence.

A few minutes after scoring, he also collected Berbatov's flick-on, teed the ball up with one touch and belted it with his second on the turn. Much to West Ham goalie Robert Green's relief, it dipped only on to the roof of the net, but it was a breathtaking piece of skill all the same.


West Ham were cautious but relatively controlled in their play. However, Gianfranco Zola's team have not won away in the league since the opening day of the season and, more alarmingly, had taken only one point from the 11 games in which they had conceded first going into this match, so asking them to come back at Old Trafford, of all places, was always going to be a tall order.

Within 30 seconds of the restart, Park set the tone of things to come when he rattled the crossbar before Rooney made it 2-0 in the 55th minute with yet another header.

Owen made sure of victory when he opened his body and found the far corner of the net after a through pass from Paul Scholes.

Meanwhile, Fabio Capello looks set to plan for England's friendly with Egypt next week having to install yet another captain after Rio Ferdinand's injury scare.

Just three games into his comeback from a long-standing back complaint that kept him out for more than three months, Ferdinand was forced to pull out of the victory over West Ham.

Alex Ferguson immediately ruled out Ferdinand for Sunday's Carling Cup final, which raises inevitable questions about the 31-year-old's chances of leading his country into their first game since John Terry was sacked.

Capello would almost certainly ask Steven Gerrard to do the job if Ferdinand does miss out, although in-form Rooney might have a claim given he had the role for the defeat by Brazil in Qatar last November.

┬ęThe Times, London