Rooney strikes to keep dark forces at bay

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Phew. It is a tribute to the job that Tony Pulis has done since his arrival at Crystal Palace that an away win over them is treated with relief. Manchester United's margin of victory was ultimately somewhat flattering against a team which has troubled clubs in far better form than the defending champions. At Arsenal, Pulis' men had put on an impressive defensive show by succumbing to two second-half goals, which was also to be their fate yesterday. Robin van Persie opened the scoring with a penalty, while Wayne Rooney secured the points and the headlines with a spectacular second.

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To look at Manchester United's team sheet was to look at a side that is very much under construction. They were an assortment of the team's soon-to-be-past and hopeful future. There was something poignant about that fact that Patrice Evra, who is closer to the Old Trafford exit door than most, made a vital contribution to both his team's goals; he was fouled for van Persie's opener, and provided the cut-back for Rooney's crashing drive.

Alongside him was Nemanja Vidic; the club captain who has already announced that he will depart at the end of the season helped his team secure a clean sheet. Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, another whose time at the club is presumably coming to a close, were partners in central defence, in a configuration that feels like the end of an era. On the bench remained Shinji Kagawa, a reminder of how fast and far a playmaker can fall if he finds himself in the wrong system and perhaps even the wrong league.

More positively, Marouane Fellaini, who represents part of David Moyes' new guard, was back in the fray after operation on his wrist. His performance was creditable rather than revelatory. But given the squad's recent injury problems, most of the coaching staff were probably just happy to see him emerge unscathed. He was not always deployed in the most sophisticated manner -- at one point the dreaded spectre of the ball being knocked long to him actually came to pass -- but he provided an effective enough screen for his defence. He did, it must be said, slice the ball high and wide with his left foot when provided with an agreeable opportunity, but otherwise passed the ball in his customary tidy, if not particular progressive fashion.

In fairness to Fellaini, his job is merely to police the fairground; it is the job of others to be the conjurors, and Manchester United have plenty of those. On Saturday, in fact, they fielded four: Rooney, van Persie, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj. However, for this quartet to play in thrilling concert, they will need full-backs of exceptional endeavour and defensive rigour, and there aren't too many of those on this planet at the moment (nor, one suspects, on many others).

Rooney's contract renewal now means, in the short term at least, that he and Mata are fated to tread on each other's toes in that number 10 spot. In the long run, though, should van Persie face recurrent injury or -- the sad possibility must be faced -- seek challenges elsewhere, the prospect of Mata playing behind Rooney is an exciting one.

This result was welcome for Moyes most of all, who had had a mixed week. On one hand he had played a part in getting Rooney to agree to a new five-and-half-year contract, yet it is unclear how much of that was due to Moyes' tough-talking stance (he informed Rooney that he had "gone soft" in recent times) or to the England forward being offered the imperial sum of 300,000 pounds per week. The money would appear to be on the latter.

On the other hand, Moyes had implied at the end of a press conference that the Premier League was somehow gleeful at his team's less than impressive performances this season. "I think the Premier League have got it the way they want it, that's for sure. They've got what they wanted", said Moyes. When pressed on what he meant, he cryptically replied "I wouldn't answer that".

But even after all the bloodied noses that Manchester United have endured in recent months, they are still in sixth place in the Premier League, with an extremely reasonable shout of finishing fifth. The champion's slump will not last forever, and Moyes' tenure has at the very least begun to offer a bracing sense of perspective.

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