Thursday 22 March 2018

Rooney rescues Van Gaal at the death

Manchester United 2-1 Swansea City

Wayne Rooney moved ahead of Denis Law on United's all-time scorer list with his first league goal since October Photo: PA
Wayne Rooney moved ahead of Denis Law on United's all-time scorer list with his first league goal since October Photo: PA
Swansea City's Angel Rangel (right) and Manchester United's Anthony Martial battle for control of the ball Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Swansea City's Gylfi Sigurdsson celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the Barclays Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday January 2, 2016. See PA story SOCCER Man Utd. Photo credit should read: Martin Rickett/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.
Swansea City's Wayne Routledge tries to evade Man Utd's Chris Smalling Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Daniel Taylor

As the Manchester United supporters headed away into the drizzle, there was at least a collective sense of relief that Louis van Gaal's team had reminded themselves what it was like to win a football match. It had been a long time coming - 42 days, to be precise - and they had to endure a wretched first half. Yet the eight-match sequence without a victory, their worst run since 1990, was finally over and Wayne Rooney's improvisational winner had soothing effects for a crowd used to better times.

Van Gaal's side made hard going of it at times and it still feels startling that Old Trafford, a stadium famous for its sense of high drama, has seen the lowest number of goals this season, 15, of all 92 league clubs. Staggeringly, United have not managed a first-half one in nine successive home games stretching back to September 30 and Van Gaal is being generous in the extreme when he says this team is still capable of winning the league.

There was, however, an improvement during a second half when United took the lead through Anthony Martial's header before toying with the idea of the game becoming another ordeal courtesy of Gylfi Sigurdsson's 71st-minute equaliser. Rooney's goal came six minutes later and should ease his crisis of confidence at a time when United's captain has admitted to being off form. In the first half, Rooney was booed when he played the ball backwards.

Rooney has now moved ahead of Denis Law to become the second-highest scorer in United's history, a dozen short of Bobby Charlton's 249, but his afternoon might still have been spoiled during a late, frenetic spell of pressure from Swansea culminating in Lukasz Fabianski, the visiting goalkeeper, coming forward for a stoppage-time corner, leaping in the manner of a modern-day John Charles and flashing a header just wide of David de Gea's post.

The final whistle shrilled moments later and United survived, but it cannot be satisfactory that, 18 months after joining the club, Van Gaal is still experimenting with new formations and still a mile away from everything fully clicking.

His new system here took some working out, veering from 3-4-2-1 to 3-1-3-3 and back again, and it is no wonder sometimes if even his own players look puzzled themselves. The football was leaden in the first half and, once again, there were times when an impatient crowd struggled to contain their frustrations.

In other parts of the game there was a brooding silence. Old Trafford is not enjoying what it sees and Van Gaal should be grateful the fans are showing more restraint than he would have experienced at some of his previous clubs. At Barcelona, it is easy to imagine how vigorously the panolada would have been fluttering and it was remarkable afterwards to hear him say he was happier with the first half than the second one.

That sentence, more than anything, sums up what an awkward fit he is at a club with United's love of adventure.

If that sounds slightly harsh after a return to winning ways, then it cannot be overstated how dreary United looked in the opening 45 minutes. At one point, the cameras turned to the seats where United's directors and staff were struggling to hide their own boredom. Alex Ferguson was playing with his phone. The academy coach, Paul McGuinness, was reading the programme and Nicky Butt also had his phone out. United were ponderous, predictable and prosaic and fortunate, perhaps, the referee, Jon Moss, gave Morgan Schneiderlin the benefit of the doubt after he hooked an attempted clearance against his own hand.

Martial's goal came two minutes into the second half with a downward header from Ashley Young's right-wing cross and at that stage United's crowd must have been encouraged by the fact they had conceded only three goals here all season. Yet the game opened up when Swansea's caretaker manager, Alan Curtis, who had left Jonjo Shelvey out of his squad, brought on Modou Barrow for Leon Britton. Britton had been the outstanding player in the first half but Barrow gave the team width and penetration and it was the Gambian's cross, having eluded the substitute Matteo Darmian, that led to Sigurdsson looping a header over De Gea for the equaliser.

Swansea could also reflect on Andre Ayew's header striking the post at 1-0 and they were aggrieved that Angel Rangel was booked for an alleged dive when he reached the loose ball with Darmian closing in. They gave everything in the closing stages and, as well as Fabianski's attempts to give the game an extraordinary last twist, De Gea had to turn away a fierce shot from Ashley Williams.

Yet this was a day, ultimately, when Rooney turned down the volume a little on his critics. His goal was a beauty, set up by Martial's driving run and low centre and turned in by Rooney's left foot, flicked behind his right, to spare Van Gaal another wave of intense scrutiny.

Wayne Rooney's flicked strike ended a gruelling run of 553 minutes without a United goal in all competitions - and was his first in the league since October. It was a landmark moment, though - making him the second top scorer in the club's history (moving one goal ahead of Denis Law's haul to a total of 238). And it was his 188th Premier League goal, making him the competition's outright second top scorer behind Alan Shearer, who ended his career with 260.


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