Thursday 23 November 2017

End of Rooney famine sees United dining at top table

Manchester United's Memphis Depay celebrates after scoring their first goal in the 3-0 win over Sunderland Photo: Andrew Yates
Manchester United's Memphis Depay celebrates after scoring their first goal in the 3-0 win over Sunderland Photo: Andrew Yates

Peter Oliver

Barring the briefest of blips when they won their opening Premier League game under David Moyes to gain a meaningless lead at the top of the table, Manchester United have not touched such dizzy heights since Alex Ferguson delivered the last of his domestic titles in 2013.

But with Manchester City losing 4-1 at Tottenham yesterday lunchtime to go pointless for the second weekend running, United suddenly had the chance to move into top spot in the title race for the first time under Louis van Gaal.

It was an opportunity that was too good to miss against the division's bottom team and Van Gaal's side duly took it - helped by Wayne Rooney's first Premier League goal in 12 games - as they further banished memories of last season's start, which even defender Chris Smalling had described as "disastrous".

Twelve months on things look a lot more healthy, even though Van Gaal is reserving judgement over his side's chances of staying the course at the head of affairs.

"Ask me that question again in May," he said when quizzed as to whether his side is capable of winning the title. "Last year when we had 13 points from 10 or 11 matches we had to chase. This year is a big difference. You can start better from the top than the bottom, but it shall be very difficult.

"We shall lose also. We play away at Arsenal next week and they are one of the most difficult teams to beat but we won there last season so it is possible. Manchester United can win against any team but also you need luck and we had that today because it was the last minute of the first half. Of course it was a wonderful goal and more or less punishment for the time Sunderland wasted."

Until dishing out that punishment United had looked laboured in a performance that did not bear the hallmark of obvious champion material. But they did what they had to do in a game that was never likely to be pretty. Given Sunderland's record at Old Trafford - one win since 1968 - and their current form things were destined to follow a predictable pattern.

Memphis Depay ended Sunderland's stubborn resistance by converting Juan Mata's square pass and after Rooney had netted in the first minute of the second half - which ended a 999-minute Premier League goal drought - there was no way back for the Black Cats, who conceded a final goal in the last minute of normal time to Mata.

Rooney joins Denis Law as United's third highest league goalscorer with 171 goals. This was one of his scruffiest but most welcome of that total.

"It doesn't matter who is scoring goals or making goals. I am not interested, although personally for Rooney, Depay and Martial it's very important," added Van Gaal. "I am a happy coach because Rooney and Depay have scored in the Premier League now and that's fantastic for their confidence."

Chelsea's stuttering start to the season continued in the evening kick-off as subs Ramires and Willian got Jose Mourinho's team out of jail as they fought back from 2-0 down at Newcastle to snatch a point.

Ayoze Perez and Georginio Wijnaldum had left the reigning Barclays Premier League champions looking at a fourth successive defeat at St James' Park, but the Brazilian duo came off the bench to claim a 2-2 draw as Steve McClaren came within four minutes of a first league win of his reign.

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