Wayne Rooney can sleep easy on his Dubai sun-lounger. Manchester United are not quite so reliant on the 25 year-old as he feared.
For the first time this season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s players were able to board the team bus having banked three points away from home, and that was largely down to the £7 million recruit who had seemingly left Rooney so unimpressed during the summer.
Javier Hernández, aka Chicharito or Little Pea, took his tally in a United shirt to five goals in 10 appearances with two predatory finishes either side of Tuncay’s blistering left-foot strike for Stoke City.
By raising his concerns in midweek over United’s ability or ambition to secure the “top players in the world”, Rooney was unambiguously casting aspersions on the likes of Hernández, Chris Smalling and Bebe. Rooney might ultimately have a point, but Hernández is already leaving his more celebrated team-mate in his wake in the scoring stakes.
Like it or not, United are still waiting for Rooney to carry them to victory this season.
Despite that, Rooney’s concerns have proved sufficient for him to crowbar a £70,000-a-week pay rise out of United this week, so maybe he is slowly rediscovering his golden touch after all.
While Rooney recuperates from the ankle injury that is likely to keep him sidelined for another fortnight, United must carry on without their star player and winning at Stoke is proof that Ferguson’s team have the ability to do that.
Bigger challenges lie ahead, with and without Rooney, but at least the first away victory has been ticked off.
The reaction of the United fans, who conspicuously failed to chant Rooney’s name during the game, suggested he will take a while to win back the affections of the supporters. Even Cristiano Ronaldo was honoured with a brief chant.
United did not miss last season’s 34-goal top scorer, however. It was as though Rooney’s critical comments about the club’s ambition had stung his team-mates into action. If so, perhaps he has already begun to justify some of his new £160,000-a-week pay packet.
United immediately put Stoke on the back foot, with the pace of Nani and Hernández causing problems.
The pair linked well on eight minutes, but Hernández’s head down for Dimitar Berbatov lacked the accuracy that the Bulgarian had demanded, judging by his furious reaction.
Stoke responded by going close when Robert Huth sent a glancing header just wide of the far post from Rory Delap’s throw-in, but United were the dominant force, and they took the lead on 27 minutes.
Nani’s cross to the far post was headed back across the six-yard box by Nemanja Vidic, but Hernández still had an awful lot to do to convert the chance. Yet the Mexican outjumped his marker and twisted in mid-air before heading the ball into the net with the back of his head. Welcome to the corkscrew header.
Stoke responded by hitting United with more Delap throw-ins and long balls, ignoring the twin talents of wingers Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington.
Both players looked dangerous when in possession and United defender Gary Neville was lucky not to be sent off following two late challenges on former West Ham winger Etherington. Neville was booked for the first on 35 minutes, but escaped a yellow card for the next one five minutes later.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis said: “If that was a Stoke player at Old Trafford who had committed the same two fouls, what do you think would have happened? Maybe the boot would be on the other foot.”
Despite Andre Marriner’s failure to dismiss Neville, Ferguson berated the referee at half-time, apparently pointing to similar unpunished offences by Delap on Hernández and Nani.
It was classic Ferguson. Having won the war with Rooney and his advisers, the Scot is clearly on a roll, so Marriner would not have been surprised by his admonishment.
United’s chances were limited and they paid the price on 81 minutes when Tuncay equalised.
The Turkish forward cut into the penalty area, where he unleashed a powerful left-foot shot which left Edwin van der Sar helpless.
It appeared as though United had thrown away a valuable victory, but Hernández scored his second from three yards after Patrice Evra had nudged Berbatov’s cross into his path.
Hernández looks the real deal. Rooney will have to raise his game if he wants to play alongside him.