It should have been a night when Wayne Rooney was sitting back on a substitute's bench or even a sofa, to contemplate an impending Manchester derby, though it is a measure of perhaps Manchester United's least convincing start to a Champions League campaign that the spot-kicks he won and then converted last night were the difference between comfort and a mounting sense of calamity.
His two goals make him the highest-scoring Englishman in Champions League history with 26, one more than Paul Scholes. They also demonstrate that there is ice in those veins as well as the fire he has displayed so fatefully elsewhere in eastern Europe earlier this month.
But the decisive goals should not entirely disguise a sense of chaos compounded by Nemanja Vidic's straight dismissal for a challenge on Otelul's Gabriel Giugiu just past the hour. It looked a poor decision by the German referee, Felix Bryche – Vidic was guilty of a clumsy challenge at most – but Sir Alex Ferguson had reasons other than officialdom to curse. A campaign which began with thoughts of how to eclipse Barcelona in Springtime is not delivering a sense that United are continental conquistadors.
Uefa will examine Vidic's challenge to see if it warrants a three-game ban, rather than the statutory one, though – like Rooney's for England in Montenegro – it would need to constitute an "assault" to do so. "I've looked at it and his foot is certainly high," Ferguson said last night. "I can understand the referee's interpretation of the incident, though. Maybe it's a bit different in Germany, but I thought it was a little harsh. It was certainly a booking."
The manager also insisted that his side were not "lucky at all" but "the better team" who dominated possession. That didn't tell the full story of a game against opposition so modest that Otelul's president Marius Stan declared in his programme notes that "to meet Manchester United, even in a friendly match, is an honour impossible to equal".
There was certainly an extraordinary incongruity about the side who had travelled 148 miles south west from their modest stadium on the Moldovan border bringing a mere 3,000 supporters to this grand, decorous venue – half empty – which will stage the Europa League final on 9 May. Neutrals made up the numbers.
Initially, United did look comfortably two yards sharper, as a pitch which began cutting up badly within the first 15 minutes looking more of an obstacle than anything. But while their approach play was gorgeous at times – two crossfield passes from Rooney and an Anderson reverse pass were high points of the first half – the final pass was missing, and most often from Antonio Valencia.
United commanded 66 per cent possession in the first half, but it took them half an hour just to bring the Romanian goalkeeper into action – a Rooney free-kick bent around the wall. It did not help that when Patrice Evra carved out the chance of the first half with a perfectly measured lay-back, Michael Carrick – Ferguson's Champions League specialist for this campaign – blazed over from 12 yards. "It's not easy to keep chasing the ball all night and they had to do that tonight," Ferguson said. "[Otelul] should take great credit for that."
He was in a hurry to be out of Romania and did not dwell on some of the untidy defensive work which has characterised this campaign. Vidic, making his first start since the calf injury which has kept him out since 14 August, had his moments before his dismissal. He gifted Bratislac Punosevac one of three first-half chances which a striker worthy of the Champions League might have converted. The sight of Anders Lindegaard's clearance cannoning into the Serbian's shoulder compounded the sense of waywardness.
Rooney's involvement had not been substantial until now but when Ferguson subtly moved him further upfield in the second half we certainly saw the impact. He controlled Nani's cross with his left foot and swivelled to shoot narrowly wide with his right, a minute before sending a cross from the left which Sergi Costin handled in the penalty area. It was a very big moment in United's campaign but the penalty was despatched unblinkingly, right-footed to the goalkeeper's left.
Vidic's sending-off stunned United and Otelul almost capitalised. Carrick, taking up Vidic's position, made one of several excellent blocks, buying Ferguson time to send on Jonny Evans and Phil Jones to shore up the defence. The dismissal of Otelul's Milan Perendija, for a second yellow, in the last minute of normal time, had just confirmed United would be home and dry when Rooney claimed the last act. He was clearly tripped by Antal as he made to feint past him in the box and stepped up to convert into the same corner of the net.
Ferguson already had Sunday's match against league leaders City in his sights, last night, concluding that it was biggest league derby during his time at Old Trafford, "Yes, I think so," he said to the suggestion. "The last couple of years it has become more intense and a lot more importance has been attached to the games. With them top and us second, it builds up to a fantastic prospect for everyone. I'm looking forward to it." Rooney is probably feeling the same, that an extra hard night's work will not make an ounce of difference.
Man of the match Nani.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee F Brych (Germany).