Scoring their first goals away against Milan in more than 40 years of trying, Manchester United secured a monumental victory in the San Siro last night. Or was it?
Rather than a stonking, glorious, ruthless exhibition, the consensus in the newspapers and online this morning is that Alex Ferguson's men enjoyed the luck of the - presumably red - devil. And even the most fervent green-and-gold-eyed fan would have to concede they did have a fair share of fortune. They were fortunate that Paul Scholes can apparently shin the ball with more precision than most strikers, that the Milan full back Luca Antonini was lying injured on the touchline gifting Darren Fletcher the space to deliver a perfect cross for Scholes's unorthodox equaliser, that never mind two, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, played as if in possession of three left feet.
The way he squandered chances during Milan's early ascendancy, can it really be true that Arsene Wenger covets the Dutchman's signature? After last night's performance you'd have to wonder that if he does, it must solely be to make Nicklas Bendtner look a better player. And sure, they were lucky that Milan failed to make the most of a period in the first half when United's defence played as if determined to give the ball away at every opportunity.
But most of all Manchester United had this enormous slice of providence: they had in their line up Wayne Rooney. Before yesterday's game, Ferguson upbraided reporters for their constant eulogising of his forward. "You guys make out like he's the greatest thing ever," he mocked. Which only goes to prove that as far as the United manager is concerned the press can never do right. The trouble is, after watching last night it is hard to do anything other than lavish him with praise.
If you want to know how good Rooney was last night, imagine this: that he had been injured during the warm up and United were obliged to field Dimitar Berbatov in his place. Or Michael Owen. Can an argument seriously be made that the result would have been the same? This is not to say United are a one-man team: Scholes, Fletcher and Carrick looked a solid midfield and Valencia can certainly deliver a cross. But what he does is make the vital difference. He also - through his astonishing work rate - allows Ferguson to field a formation that floods the midfield.
Playing Rooney on his own upfield is not like playing anyone else there: he is strong enough, persistent enough, aggressive enough and skilled enough to occupy the attentions of all four defenders. Then there is his scoring. When he first arraived at Old Trafford he claimed he was not much use at heading. Last night's evidence suggests he must have worked at it. Both his goals were headers of which Joe Jordan - once a hero at the San Siro - would have been proud. And he scored them because of his intuitive running and positional play.
Best of all, there is his adaptability. Previously most of us reckoned he was at his best playing off a striker. Even Ferguson thought that, which was why he spent £32 million on Berbatov. But this season, Rooney has transformed himself into a centre-forward. He is so good there, rampaging and finishing, to put him anywhere else would be reckless.
Most Premier League-centric observers insist Rooney is right now the best in the world. With Fernando Torres injured and thus out of the reckoning, they may have a point. But while we can probably agree he is on a somewhat higher plane than Huntelaar, comparison doesn't really matter. Whether Rooney is better than Drogba or Adebayor or anyone else is an irrelevance. What counts is what he does on the pitch. And while some will doubtless post-rationalise Milan's defence as made up of regulars at the Darby and Joan Club, last night was some statement. Basically, if you want to get lucky, make sure Rooney is in your side.
- Manchester United
- Alex Ferguson
- Wayne Rooney
- Paul Scholes