Rooney's smile signals return of old swagger
MANCHESTER UTD 2 CRYSTAL PALACE 0
If it was closure for Wayne Rooney, he certainly could not have picked a better moment to draw a line under his fractious summer at Manchester United and smile for the first time in what seems like months.
With Alex Ferguson making his first appearance in the directors' box since stepping down as manager at Old Trafford in May, the man cited by Rooney as the primary factor in his determination to leave the club was afforded the best seat in the house as the player scored the match-sealing goal in the win over Crystal Palace.
While Ferguson's fellow dignitaries rose to their feet in unison as Rooney's 82nd-minute free-kick nestled in Julian Speroni's net, United's former manager remained seated before offering a knowing grin as Rooney, sporting a striking black headband to protect the gash that forced him out of England's recent World Cup qualifiers, held his arms aloft and beamed his delight.
Rooney's smile may become a scowl again if Ferguson's autobiography, due to be published on the striker's 28th birthday next month, reopens the can of worms that is their troubled relationship, which David Moyes spent so long attempting to resolve this summer.
Yet after a three-month transfer saga and clumsy utterances from player and club, not to mention his surprisingly swift return to action from injury, September 14 may ultimately go down as the day that Rooney turned the leaf on a new, positive chapter in his career. His goal, a 25-yard free-kick after the mercurial Belgian teenager Adnan Januzaj had been fouled by Adlene Guedioura, was merely the embellishment to an outstanding performance. It was perfect timing, too, what with Bayer Leverkusen looming in the Champions League tomorrow.
He dictated play, won 50-50 challenges, encouraged Januzaj and debutant Marouane Fellaini and, with a sublime 30-yard pass to Robin van Persie, almost re-created the Dutchman's volleyed goal of the season against Aston Villa last April. Van Persie could only scrape the Palace crossbar this time.
Still, Rooney was everywhere and, if Ferguson felt he was damaged goods in the latter stages of last season when he regularly dropped or substituted the forward, the Scot saw the old Rooney against Palace and Moyes now hopes it is a sign of things to come.
"I think that is right," Moyes said. "It has been so stop-start through pre-season that to get him to this situation was, I think, a big moment for Wayne. It was a great free-kick too. The ability to get the ball up and down over the wall quickly was good.
"He has got himself in a really good physical condition, albeit with a lack of match practice. The crowd have given him a great lift and hopefully he can repay them with plenty of goals. He needs a period now to get back to what he does best. In the first half he was excellent but tired in the second.
"I had spoken to him to try and get 90 minutes under his belt and I thought that would help us in the long run. I could have changed it earlier but I wanted him to get those minutes because he needs it."
United, collectively, also appear to need minutes to find their stride this season. Despite dominating Palace throughout, a victory via two set-pieces ensures work is needed on breaking down opponents.
But for Palace harshly being reduced to 10 men by referee Jon Moss on 44 minutes after Kagisho Dikgacoi's foul on Ashley Young, which led to Van Persie scoring from the spot, it may have been even more difficult for United.
Having booked Young moments earlier for diving – an issue Moyes will raise with the England player – Moss was faced with dismissing Young for a second display of simulation, or sending off Dikgacoi for the foul, which the referee did not see.
The other big talking point from Saturday's match was the performance of teenager Adnan Januzaj.
When United's transfer window ended so ignominiously, Januzaj's promotion to the first-team squad seemed like a piece of self-justification by Moyes.
However, the 18-year-old let his feet do Moyes' talking when he made his Premier League debut on a day for remembering new beginnings – 50 years on exactly from when George Best first pulled on the No 7 jersey.
All things in perspective, but Januzaj displayed some of the sang froid that Best displayed all those years ago, and demonstrated, just like him, that the slender frame which everyone at Carrington agrees needs filling out should not be an impediment to progress.
"Gonna be like Tiger Woods," Januzaj recently said on Facebook, so delighted was he to receive some new kit from a sponsor. He's the only United first-team player with as few as 662 followers on Twitter. But the boy can play.
"Everyone knows he's a player with enormous qualities. Technically he's amazing," his compatriot and new team-mate Marouane Fellaini observed after his own notable arrival from the bench. "Now it's up to him to prove himself."
Januzaj is a young man with his own mind, who has not played for Belgium at any youth level because of thoughts of his parents' homeland of Albania – despite a career formed at Anderlecht, who were paid €600,000 by United for him two years ago. (© Daily Telegraph, London)