Four years ago, Wayne Rooney won the Carling Cup final with Manchester United and celebrated with the kind of delight that only the first major trophy of a career can evoke in a footballer. Yesterday, the pre-eminent player in English football could have been forgiven for taking the same trophy and casually throwing it on the pile with all the rest.
This season Rooney has made it look so easy: scoring goals, winning matches and now winning trophies. His sixth major trophy in the space of four years demonstrated his current dominance of the English game better than any other. Rooney did not start this match but that did not stop him from being the decisive factor in its outcome.
It was Rooney's header, perfectly placed over the dive of Brad Friedel with 16 minutes of the game to play that won the Carling Cup final for United yesterday. A header that was similar to his first against Milan at San Siro a fortnight ago, one that beat the goalkeeper with its flight rather than its power. But then Rooney has a back catalogue of goals this season to compare with anyone.
This was the performance of a man who can win the Carling Cup in his spare time; indeed it was supposed to be an afternoon off for Rooney. He has intervened only when strictly necessary, scoring the winning goal against Manchester City in the semi-final second leg and yesterday he did not even step onto the pitch until the 41st minute when he replaced the injured Michael Owen.
Once Rooney had scored – his seventh headed goal in his last eight and his 27th of the season – there was an inevitability about the outcome of this game. He hit the post shortly afterwards and even in the post-match celebration there was a bit of flatness about United's players, a "what-did-you-expect?" attitude about the club that just keeps winning trophies.
It had not always been like that, with Aston Villa the more aggressive at the start and ahead within five minutes through James Milner's penalty. That was the moment that manager Martin O'Neill claimed that the game should have changed when Nemanja Vidic hauled Gabriel Agbonlahor down in the penalty area and was not even booked, let alone sent off, by referee Phil Dowd. The cameras cut to O'Neill on the bench who shouted "He's off, he's off" and then, as the reality dawned, "He's not going to send him off".
Vidic had grabbed a handful of Agbonlahor's shirt as he doubled back and went past the United defender a second time. You could argue that Agbonlahor's original momentum towards goal had been disrupted by the time Vidic finally tripped him but the United man still looked like the last defender.
It was a big decision by Dowd and he let Vidic off the hook. All centre-halves, no matter how good, are susceptible to the quickest strikers but yesterday Vidic looked shakier than usual.
Agbonlahor is a fine footballer but he is not in the same class as Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba, the kind of players against whom Vidic must ultimately measure himself.
"It is universally accepted that it is a poor decision," said O'Neill afterwards. Even a yellow card would have meant that Vidic would have been dismissed on 82 minutes when he was finally booked for another foul on Agbonlahor. Dowd said before the game that he hoped he would be "unnoticed". His wish was not fulfilled.
The day's other subplot was Owen, who scored United's equaliser on 12 minutes with the instinctive hit-first-time goal that was once his trademark. Owen did not even finish the half, his hamstring giving way when he lunged to control a ball over the top by Dimitar Berbatov. He ended up climbing the steps to get his medal in his club suit.
There were moments before then when Owen looked like he had a spring in his step that has been rare in recent years. After 10 minutes he surged past Stiliyan Petrov and James Collins, drawing a foul from the latter.
An Owen injury in an England week used to be a major issue but not anymore. "There are a lot of people getting their knickers in a twist over me and England," Owen said, "I just want to play for Manchester United and if I get the recognition then great."
Fabio Capello, who was in the stand yesterday, is already well-served for strikers and if Rooney's knee problems do not clear up in time for Wednesday's game against Egypt then it is surely Agbonlahor who deserves to be next in the queue. Like many of Villa's young English players yesterday – Milner, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young included – he played well for periods, just not to the exceptional standard required to beat United.
Just as they faltered against them at Villa Park earlier in the month when Luis Nani was sent off, so Villa just fell short of seizing the moment yesterday. Milner forced a good save from Tomasz Kuszczak on 16 minutes but not until the very end, when Richard Dunne misjudged a back post header that might have taken the game to extra-time did Villa really put pressure on the United goal.
Dunne had slipped up for United's equaliser, allowing Berbatov to take the ball from him and bear down on Villa's goal. Collins made the challenge but could not help redirecting the ball to Owen's feet who hit it first time. Collins was beaten by Rooney for the winner after Antonio Valencia had made inroads down the right wing.
There were some superb performances from United, not least in Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick in the centre of midfield. Valencia was excellent and so too was Berbatov, who partnered Owen then Rooney in a 4-4-2 formation. Berbatov does not cover the same amount of ground as Rooney but his touches around the penalty area opened Villa up on occasions.
Beating United is an exceptional achievement and Villa have managed it once already this season. They are, as O'Neill said, an excellent young team. The trouble is that when Rooney is in this kind of form it takes something rather special to ensure he does not walk off with the prize.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar (Carew, 80), Collins, Dunne, Warnock; A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing; Heskey, Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), L Young, Sidwell, Delfouneso, Delph, Beye.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; R Da Silva (Neville, 66), Vidic, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Fletcher, Carrick, Park (Gibson, 85); Owen (Rooney, 41), Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Brown, Scholes, Diouf.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire)
Booked: Aston Villa: Collins, Downing. Manchester United: Evra, Vidic.
Man of the match: Fletcher
Rooney: Ferguson's head boy
After scoring the winner with his head yesterday, Wayne Rooney has now scored eight headed goals in his last nine appearances.
MAN UTD 4-0 HULL: The striker works himself space in the box and heads in Nani's cross to complete his hat-trick.
MAN UTD 3-1 MAN CITY: The 24-year-old rises to meet Ryan Gigg's magnificent cross in the finalminute to send United through to the Carling Cup final.
MAN UTD 5-0 PORTSMOUTH: Rooney starts the rout by meeting a Fletcher cross from a short corner.
MILAN 2-3 MAN UTD: First directs a header past the stranded Dida from Valencia's cross,then runs on to Fletcher's floated ball to glance in his second.
MAN UTD 3-0 WEST HAM: Finishes flowing move with a diving header for his first, then heads infrom close range for his second.
ASTON VILLA 1-2 MAN UTD: Powerfully meets Valencia's cross.