Rooney back on goal trail
Manchester Utd 3
Aston Villa 1
In a week when the value of a goalscorer has reached new stratospheric levels, Wayne Rooney finally reminded Manchester United why he was too valuable to let go by re-awakening his dormant goal-touch to secure victory against Aston Villa.
Two goals from Rooney, plus an assist for Nemanja Vidic's second-half strike, ensured that United equalled the club record run of 29 league games unbeaten and maintained their five-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
But the statistics pale into insignificance in comparison to the impact of Rooney's return to the scoresheet.
Fernando Torres might have cost Chelsea £50m but when Rooney is scoring goals, and making them, he is priceless to United.
The fact that United went into this game on the brink of equalling the record was largely due to their remarkable fightback from 2-0 down at Villa Park in November.
Three months on, Alex Ferguson's team sit in a commanding position at the top of the table, with doubts over the fitness of Rio Ferdinand and goalscoring prowess of Dimitar Berbatov long since banished.
The only blot on United's landscape -- prior to last night -- was Rooney's continuing search for the scoring form that has evaporated since he rattled in 19 goals in 18 games between January and the end of March last season.
Injury, scandal and his acrimonious contract stand-off with the club have all conspired to blunt Rooney's edge, and he went into this fixture having scored just three goals in a United shirt all season -- two of those penalties.
Ferguson insisted in his programme notes ahead of the game that he was "not worried" by Rooney's goal drought and even claimed that he would be happy for the forward to end the season with just 10 goals to his name, providing Berbatov took his own tally to 30.
Perhaps it was another Ferguson psychological ploy, to bruise Rooney's pride by suggesting he only expected another seven goals from him over the final four months of the season.
If so, it had the desired effect, with Rooney taking just 49 seconds of the game to register his first goal at Old Trafford since August and his first from open play on home turf since scoring against Liverpool last March.
The goal was all instinct, with no time for doubts or second thoughts to blur his focus.
Edwin van der Sar's 60-yard free-kick, a long punt from the edge of his penalty area, led to a sprint between Rooney and Richard Dunne, but the United forward outmuscled the Villa defender before striking a right-foot volley past Brad Friedel from 18 yards.
It was a blistering strike, Rooney at his best, and a timely reminder of just why Ferguson went the extra mile in order to keep him at Old Trafford last October.
Villa, a much more capable team following the £30m January additions of Darren Bent and Jean Makoun, proved a stubborn opponent, however, and Gerard Houllier's players responded by attempting to catch United out with their pace.
But the second goal that United required to kill Villa off came in first-half stoppage time when Rooney delivered again with another predatory strike.
The impressive Nani teed him up with a cross to the far post and the United striker beat Friedel with a first-time left-foot shot.
Bent, who marked his debut following his £24m arrival from Sunderland with the winner against Manchester City 10 days ago, halved the deficit on 58 minutes from 12 yards, after being picked out unmarked by Stewart Downing's cross from the right.
The goal gave Villa hope, but it also jolted United back into life after they had seemingly sleepwalked out of the dressing room for the start of the second-half.
And the hosts restored their two-goal lead in stunning fashion five minutes later when Vidic scored the kind of goal centre-halves usually only dream about. The Serbian defender nodded Ryan Giggs' cross down to Rooney in the six-yard box, but the forward laid the ball back to his captain, who beat Friedel with a ferocious shot from 15 yards.
The finish was as emphatic as the victory and, with the scent of goals back in Rooney's nostrils, United are entering the final straight in ominous form. (© Daily Telegraph, London)