Sunday 18 February 2018

Rooney gets timing right to send Reds to summit

Manchester United 3 Sunderland 0

Wayne Rooney bundles the ball over the line for Manchester United’s second goal yesterday
Wayne Rooney bundles the ball over the line for Manchester United’s second goal yesterday
Manchester United's Memphis Depay celebrates after scoring their first goal
Manchester United's Bastian Schweinsteiger battles with Sunderland's Jeremain Lens

Jamie Jackson

Manchester United will end the current Premier League round top for the first time since Alex Ferguson left the team as champions in May 2013, following this stroll of a victory over Sunderland.

United have led the competition three times since Ferguson retired, but only due to playing before other sides and were subsequently overtaken. Now, Louis van Gaal's team will spend at least a week as the leaders and, as Wayne Rooney ended his league drought on 999 minutes with United's second, this was a satisfying day all round.

Given Manchester City's September capitulation - they are to close the month with only one league victory - and Chelsea's struggles, United deserve to be at the summit and to be taken seriously as contenders to claim a 21st title.

This was a game Van Gaal's men might have claimed by a larger scoreline given their near-total domination. In Daley Blind and the ever-convincing Anthony Martial, the men in red had the contest's outstanding players.

Martial's first contribution was some dazzling footwork that drew a free-kick to the right of the visitors' penalty area. Juan Mata swung this in but failed to clear the first man and the ball was hit away.

When Memphis Depay took possession near Costel Pantilimon's goal moments later, he had a chance to display the balletic touch of Martial but failed and another opportunity was spurned.

Sunderland began like a team who were bottom and winless and who would end the afternoon with these facts unchanged. As the quarter hour passed, Dick Advocaat's side had barely kept United out of their half. Younes Kaboul perhaps offered a snapshot of why Sunderland are in peril on 21 minutes. From the left, with no pressure on him, the French centre-back whacked the ball straight out.

Carelessness seemed contagious. United's Matteo Darmian, at left-back, sprayed what should have been a simple cross out. Then United's defence slumbered and Jeremain Lens was allowed a shot at goal that David de Gea saved well.

As the clock ticked to 31 minutes gone, Rooney was less than a quarter of an hour from reaching the 1,000-minute mark with no Premier League goal. In addition to this unwanted run, the captain had thus far been becalmed. An illustration came when he could have turned the visiting defence, but the pass was overhit.

There was only precision in the sublime way Blind created United's opener. The Dutchman sliced Sunderland open with a dipping 35-yard pass that was akin to a quarterback finding a wide receiver as it anticipated Mata's path. The Spaniard squared the ball first-time and Depay finished for his maiden league strike in United colours.

This came deep into added time at the close of the half and Van Gaal said: "I was very happy with the goal in extra-time because they punished themselves. They were always wasting time and the referee was not reacting to that."

Inside the first minute of the second half came a moment Rooney should recall when his career is long over. A 235th strike in United colours came thanks to Martial who bounced a couple of Sunderland defenders off him and crashed the ball across the six-yard box. Rooney's knee did the rest, and the drought clock was stopped 999 minutes after it began.

Now came an instant reminder to United to remain focused. Yann M'Vila dropped a free-kick into a melee near De Gea and the latter was forced to save sharply. Further evidence that the Spaniard is unaffected by the Real Madrid transfer farrago came when Patrick van Anholt raced clear. De Gea stayed calm, and, when the attempt came, he saved comfortably. Perhaps what impresses most about Martial are his choices. Just as the teenaged Rooney knew when to shoot and pass, so too does the Frenchman. On 66 minutes he raced clear with the ball and Depay alongside him. The No 9 might have continued the run but instead found the Dutchman and he should have done better than shoot into Pantilimon's midriff. Juan Mata sealed the victory with a late third.

Of a fifth loss from their seven outings, Advocaat said: "The problem was they scored one minute before half-time and one minute after half-time. It's a shame we gave that goal away in the first half because it made things different in the second half. United were the better side but they didn't create a lot of chances."

Van Gaal's men now have 16 points, one more than local rivals City.


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