A start for Rooney, an end for Rangers
He celebrated with the maniacal knee-slide that has complemented many of his Manchester United goals, and was only too happy to accept the plaudits of the flailing supporters. Wayne Rooney's penalty had decided affairs, and added his team to the list of participants in the Champions League knockout stages. In terms of his redemption, it is a start, but the well-placed spot-kick masked an unconvincing return.
United remain unbeaten for 28 games, though many are not sure how. Their previous best of 29 games unbeaten came during the halcyon days of the 1998-99 Treble-winning season and only the most red-eyed observer could ever expect the same level of achievement from a United squad that is muddling its way through. Though they clearly possess an iron-hard spirit, they continue to lack flow and verve.
Sir Alex Ferguson, while defensive about his team's overall standards, agreed that they are yet to hit their straps. "We are looking for a rhythm," he said, "and when we get our rhythm, we are a very good team, and we are waiting for that." Though they dominated in terms of percentage of possession, it was hard to fully agree with Ferguson's belief that United "deserved to win". Rangers deserved something from the game, and the penalty that separated the teams also divided the opinion of old oppos Ferguson and Rangers counterpart Walter Smith.
Fabio's lunge into the penalty area to win a header was halted by what Ferguson termed an "assault" from Steven Naismith in the 86th minute, but Smith felt the Swiss referee had got it wrong. "There was no great intent," he offered in defence of Naismith. Rooney, though, took what his manager described as a "fantastic penalty" to send the Rangers hordes to the exits and, yet again, a win had been scrubbed from a largely indifferent performance.
Perhaps United's lack of fluency is down to the fact that United's first-choice XI, such as it is, rarely play together. Ferguson's rotation policy is now putting Rafael Benitez to shame. It is known among fans as Ferguson's 'selection tombola' and this time a first-choice - nominally - front six played in front of a green-looking defensive unit, with Chris Smalling partnered by Jonny Evans in the centre, and Fabio manning the flanks with old faithful John O'Shea. It came in contrast to Saturday's stuttering show against Wigan, in which a decidedly inexperienced strike force of Kiko Macheda and Gabriel Obertan struggled in front of a first-choice defence.
Rather than rotating mere players, it seems Sir Alex now chooses to switch around whole departments. This was a risk calculated on his belief that Rangers' attacking ambitions would be limited and that qualification for the next round was already all but secured. Indeed, many Scottish eyes will have been on matters in Valencia, where a 6-1 thumping of Bursaspor ended Rangers' hopes of qualification, though there was the consolation of Europa League football beyond Christmas.
In terms of headline-making material, the technicalities of the structure of United's defence paled into insignificance in the light of Rooney's first start for a month, during which time he has converted himself from 'White Pele' to Red pariah. Only a return to the rumbustious Rooney of last winter can fully resurrect him in the eyes of many United followers, though it was Rangers fans who barracked him more here. It should perhaps be of more concern to Manchester United that Dimitar Berbatov looked the more out-of-touch striker. The indolence and ineffectuality looks to have returned and, on this evidence, his weekend omission from United's squad looked justified. Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor, recently linked with a possible move to Old Trafford, did not have a save to make in the first half, though Rooney's drifting header had him beaten before it crashed off the bar.
Until the penalty conversion, the pair had misfired, matching each other scuff for skew, and while Rooney's early second-half free-kick had McGregor floundering again, the target had been missed anyway. Berbatov followed that with an ugly slice from a fine Ryan Giggs cross. A glimpse of the Berbatov that sank Liverpool made a brief appearance when warming McGregor's hands with a self-created chance made by a balletic shimmy, but soon after he produced an example of his ever-changing moods by berating Nani for the perceived slight of not releasing the ball early enough. A blaze over from Rooney then had the Rangers fans chortling at his inability to "score in a brothel". The anthem would be revived late on in irony by mocking United fans after the winner had arrived.
While Rooney had the possible excuse of a lack of practice, his partner looked jaded at best. In the build-up to this match, Ferguson had labelled Rooney and Berbatov his prime pairing, but this was a disjointed evening that offered hope to the likes of Javier Hernandez, who eventually replaced Berbatov with a quarter of an hour to spare.
"We need him to be on the pitch," Ferguson said of Rooney. "He's rusty and needing games. That's obvious, but it's a start for him."
The pair's snatched efforts were described as "half chances" by both managers. Indeed, the best chance of the opening 45 minutes arrived at the feet of Rangers' lone frontman, Kenny Miller, before Edwin van der Sar's long legs deflected his placed shot behind for a corner. Though they defended deep, and with no little doggedness, Rangers were able to carve open chances of the type that were gold-dust for them in the corresponding group opener at Old Trafford. In the second period, Van Sar also came to the rescue when some Evans dallying allowed Steven Naismith to be presented with a one-on-one that perhaps came too quickly for the Rangers him, and the ball was smuggled away by the goalkeeper.
Walter Smith's European successes have been achieved often through the medium of tedium, and though this performance offered some attacking intent, a draw would not have been enough to avoid the trapdoor. Smith's squad has been decimated by injury, and he had little on the bench to change up matters. Those few chances that were offered up needed to be taken and were not.
"The way we play, we've got to take opportunities that come our way. We've got to take advantage," Smith said. "Once we lose the first goal, we're going to struggle to get back into it."
Smith, despite his noticeable disappointment, handed no little credit to the victors. "A lot of people have been talking about how they haven't been playing well but United are a fantastic team," he reflected. "I wish we could get the results they get without playing well." He is probably not alone in thinking that.
ROYAL RUMPUS: A half-time message from a 'Bristol Loyal' on the Rangers scoreboard offered congratulations to Prince William and Kate Middleton as some of the nation prepares for the happy event on April 29.
MAN OF THE MATCH: David Weir. Evergreen is not something to call a Rangers player but the 40-year-old is still as effective as in any time of his long career. The frustrations of Rooney and Berbatov were in no small part down to the command and know-how of a player who is still his country's best defender.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Their passing moves were often disrupted and they looked unlikely to score until Naismith's clumsiness awarded them their goal. Yet patience is a virtue United always possess through 90 minutes, and it was rewarded here. Chris Smalling in defence received special plaudits from his manager, who described him as "fantastic".
RANGERS VERDICT: The presence of just six substitutes indicated the task in hand for an injury-decimated squad and they fell short with honours. Their inability to take those chances they had created killed off their dwindling hopes, but the result still looked cruel on them. Smith may have called for reinforcements in January but also admitted he had little chance of getting any.