Manchester United 4 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
Not everyone at Manchester United came back miserable from what Sir Alex Ferguson called their “black week” in Switzerland.
When Wayne Rooney first received his Euro 2012 ban he was so down Ferguson decided to leave him out of the starting line-up. Having had that ban reduced in Nyon must have come as a relief. He certainly played like a man unburdened at Old Trafford.
Rooney had not scored in the Premier League since that red card in Montenegro – a run of eight barren games – and with United wallowing in their Champions League hangover, this was a bracing Bloody Mary of a performance.
He combined effortlessly with the excellent Nani and Antonio Valencia to pull Wolves apart. The visitors were poor but United made them pay for it. If their confidence had been dented in Basle, there was little evidence for it.
That is not to say that United’s season is seamlessly back on track after a routine home win. There will be games in which Nemanja Vidic’s absence will be more keenly felt and the club needs to find an heir to Paul Scholes.Going forward, though, United must surely give Valencia an extended run in the side after this ruthless performance, especially as Nani revelled cutting in from the left.
Rooney, though, was the outstanding performer. It was not just the two goals. At one point he lobbed the ball over a baffled and helpless Roger Johnson – he might as well have made the ball disappear – before taming it and scooting off again. He cushioned one pass off his thigh and hit passes that curved through the air as they flew towards their targets.
When Rooney starts scoring he likes to gorge himself. Ferguson hopes he will grow fat in the festive period. “You hope he goes on a spurt now,” Ferguson said. “Normally Wayne goes in spurts. For instance in early season he scored 11 goals. Now we are going into a crucial part of the season so if he gets that goal ratio back it puts us in a good position.
“The players were disappointed with Wednesday, there’s no doubt about that and for the young players who have never experienced a bad defeat it’s good for them.”
Ferguson had used his programme notes to air his own reflections on Basle and the “black week”. He wrote: “There is no disguising the fact it’s a big blow for us. But though we may gnash our teeth, there is no use wailing about it. We will take a lot of stick from critics and even from people we thought were perhaps on our side, but we mustn’t dwell on that either.
“People are starting to talk about the Europa League as a second class competition and obviously we are stepping down, but if we go into it feeling it’s not worthy of us then we will come a cropper again. The only way for us to prove ourselves is for us to go out and win it.”
United could have been three goals to the good by the time they opened the scoring. On 17 minutes Valencia hit a pass across field to Nani who took the ball down on his chest and started a checking run across the edge of the box, leaving Karl Henry behind before shooting low into the bottom corner. He had not scored since the end of September and will be relieved to end his own dry patch.
United were hitting Wolves with fluid, sinuous counter-attacks so when the second goal came there was little surprise. It started with Chris Smalling’s clever flicked pass into the path of Michael Carrick, who carried the ball forward before sending it out to Nani. The Portuguese winger played it back inside to Rooney who squeezed his shot through three Wolves defenders, wrong-footing goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.
Wolves had to improve in the second half and so they did. Temporarily at least. Within two minutes of the restart Matt Jarvis hung a cross up at the far post and Steven Fletcher got comfortably above Patrice Evra to head in. That was his 11th goal in 16 games and if he keeps scoring, there will always be hope. The problem is tightening things up at the back, especially away from home. This was their sixth straight defeat on the road.
Valencia, in the side in place of Ashley Young, was too quick for Stephen Ward and on 56 minutes he collected Phil Jones’s pass and ran at his man, sending a cross between his legs into the path of Nani for a close-range finish.
Valencia made the fourth too, pulling the ball back across the box for Rooney, who met it with a superbly executed volley.
There will be plenty of chances for Rooney to add to his tally, with games against QPR, Fulham, Wigan, Blackburn and Newcastle before the FA Cup clash with Manchester City on Jan 7. They are two points behind their neighbours.
“We always hope thatfeel the pressure,” Ferguson said. “But we have to focus on getting our own game right. If we get to New Year’s Day in the frame, we’ll have a great chance in the second half of the season.”