Manchester United chose not to splash out in the transfer window but perhaps they always knew Wayne Rooney could give them a mid-season boost. The striker looked a completely new player against Aston Villa, showing his sharpness in the opening minute and going on to treble his number of club goals from open play for the season.
With Antonio Valencia also on his way back and Park Ji-sung due to return from the Asian Cup, Sir Alex Ferguson could be right in thinking United do not particularly need anyone at this stage. Not at current prices anyway, though Darren Bent again demonstrated his reliability in front of goal with a typical strike to bring Villa back in the second half.
“I think Bent going for the price he did produced a chain reaction in the rest of the transfer window,” Ferguson said. “Right through the country people were suddenly using that as a mark for what players were worth. It was a really good performance from us, though, and a fantastic hit from Wayne to start us off. He’s bound to have had the lack of goals at the back of his mind, but the thing about Wayne is he never stops trying. You can’t ever fault him for lack of effort.”
Gérard Houllier couldn’t fault him at all. “He has everything,” the Villa manager said. “I thought Rooney and Ryan Giggs were awesome. United will be unstoppable if they carry on playing like that. We came here to have a go but they caught us by surprise right away.”
Brad Friedel – three months short of his 40th birthday – officially became Villa’s oldest ever player in this game, and he must have felt it when Rooney belted the ball past him to open the scoring after 48 seconds. An even older player began the move, Edwin van der Sar launching the ultimate route one strike by spotting how high a defensive line Villa were attempting to maintain and sending a quick free-kick from outside his own area straight up the middle to the edge of the opposite one.
Given something to chase Rooney lost no time in getting goalside of the labouring Richard Dunne, took one steadying touch then lashed a shot beyond Friedel. It was the striker’s second goal of the season from open play and his first at Old Trafford for almost a year. “It was a great ball from Edwin,” Rooney said. “We’ve been trying to do that for a while. As a striker, you always want to score, but I’ve been happy with the way I’ve been playing, except for the Blackpool game. I just couldn’t get into that one. We haven’t written Chelsea off but it’s up to us where the title goes.”
Nani was United’s liveliest attacker for the rest of the first half, unlucky not to get a penalty when he was unceremoniously barged over by Dunne in the area and close to claiming a second goal when Friedel just managed to get fingertips to a stinging drive. That followed a mistake in defence by Dunne, who was not having the best of nights. The returning Rio Ferdinand, by contrast, barely put a foot wrong. Jean Makoun played with more confidence and authority than he had shown on his debut at Wigan last week, but though Stewart Downing and Marc Albrighton tried swapping wings, most of Villa’s passing also crossed the pitch harmlessly without making much forward impact.
By the midway stage Friedel had had to make saves from Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra, and Dimitar Berbatov put a decent opportunity to extend his side’s lead over the bar when Nani’s deep cross found him at the far post. Just when it looked as though United might have to be content with a single goal to show for their first-half superiority Nani produced an even better cross from the right in stoppage time, an invitation that even an off-form Rooney would probably have accepted.
He no longer looks quite so off-form, however. He took up exactly the right position to profit from the cross and, after Nani had comprehensively beaten Ciaran Clark by the touchline and sent a curling ball towards the far post, dispatched it with his old elan.
Villa needed to show character after that, and they responded superbly just before the hour, even if United did give them a helping hand by losing possession in a three-man midfield pile-up. Downing seized on the loose ball and galloped away down the right before looking up and sending over the sort of low, early cross that Bent thrives on.
Unfortunately for the visitors they could not threaten again before United restored their two-goal advantage, and again Rooney was involved, playing the ball easily back in a tight situation so that Nemanja Vidic could thump a shot past an unsighted Friedel. Vidic had initially knocked down Giggs’s diagonal cross to Rooney and stuck around in a crowded penalty area to accept the return.
This was Villa’s first defeat in six matches, though they should do well against most teams if they can call on this sort of spirit. Ashley Young rattled Van der Sar’s bar in the second half and Dunne headed narrowly over as Villa refused to give up. Dunne was also responsible for denying Rooney his hat-trick with a well-timed tackle when the striker ran on to a through ball 13 minutes from time. Even then there was still time for Rooney to bring a terrific, diving save from Friedel before the end.
Normal service is close to being resumed, and a 29th league game unbeaten equals a record set in the Treble year of 1999. “We missed some great chances, and their goalkeeper made at least three great saves,” a hard-to-please Ferguson said. “We deserved to win by more.”