Ian Herbert: Rooney's rediscovered focus adds a touch of fantasy to battling victory


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The Independent Football

It was as pure a definition of fantasy football as you will see. The chest control, the 20-yard pass bent with the outside of a right boot from a position barely outside of the centre circle and – perhaps the best part – a determination to be up in the penalty box to take the ball back by the time that Ryan Giggs had finished running with it.

Didier Deschamps did not intend harm when he said, quite innocently, in Stade Velodrome two weeks ago that United's play was not quite the "fantasy of years past" but the words were certainly ringing in his ears after that moment of ingenuity.

"I hope we can show Didier Deschamps that despite his suggestion that our present side doesn't have as much 'fantasy' [as] our team of a few years ago, we are still capable of producing our fair share of magic," Sir Alex Ferguson had said in his programme notes. "I take his point but don't underestimate the boys of today."

The manager had been unwilling to indulge in too much sentiment on Monday when the time came to consider Rooney's possible role in the weeks ahead. He obfuscated rather when this correspondent put it to him that Rooney's mental and physical absence in the early part of the season might have stored up a reservoir of momentum for now.

But Rooney's head is clear and he does seems to be living for his football once again. That fifth minute arcing pass across to the right flank last night – and the subsequent race over 40 yards of turf to slide the ball through to Javier Hernandez, who gratefully deposited it in the net – was one of at least three vast, Scholesian passes the Englishman sprayed out last night. Ferguson did not even require a prelude to what was on his mind in his programme notes. "We will be going for it," his epistle began and as you read it, at just after 7pm, you could just hear those very words of Glaswegian rhetoric sounding in the depths of the stadium.

Yes, Rooney certainly "went for it". And in a formation with Javier Hernandez (in the 4-4-1-1, he was tucked just in behind the Mexican poacher, who continues to display extraordinary height for such a slight individual) that makes you sense that Ferguson might have found the perfect combination, much though it may sink Dimitar Berbatov into a characteristic fog of gloom.

The manager would certainly like to have enjoyed this spectacle. The football was fine – comfortably finer, in phases, than anything United have conjured in this Champions League campaign. But their European tie was perched actually on a knife-edge for all but the seven-minute period when they led 2-0.

The absence of Nemanja Vidic was bad enough. It meant that Chris Smalling who, three years ago yesterday was playing at Harlow for Maidstone in front of 323 people, was handed the most onerous responsibility of his career.

United had conceded 12 goals in eight games on the occasions both Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were missing this season and the ship listed several times. They could have been 2-1 down by the break. Andre-Pierre Gignac's looped shot over the bar after ten minutes was a hugely significant misconnection.

As John O'Shea, selected for height, limped off, and then Rafael, the man who had arrived in his place, disappeared in the same direction, Ferguson was running out of defenders. Wes Brown's own goal contributed as much to his own unconvincing night as to the notion, which Fabio Capello is known to foster, that Smalling still needs time to develop with an accomplished partner.

But a fantasy of the manager's own making proved decisive. As Rafael was stretchered from the field, Rooney was engaged in deep conversation at the touchline with his manager. This time, the striker delivered the instructions. The outcome was the tactical switch which repositioned Giggs to the central position from which he levelled the short ball which Hernandez converted. Rooney has still not scored in Europe this season but as this tournament reaches the stage when the superstars are called upon to step up, we may be about to see him make a huge impression on it.