Wayne Rooney seizes centre stage for his act of revenge on Manchester City
Pain of losing the title inspires striker to break United legend Sir Bobby Charlton's Manchester derby scoring record
On an afternoon which posed so many question about Roberto Mancini's team selection and purchases, the wisdom of selling Nigel de Jong to Milan for £3m seems almost besides the point, thought the Dutchman would certainly have been the man to check Wayne Rooney's searing run through the heart of midfield, which left Gareth Barry frantically waving but drowning, 15 minutes in .
Rooney (right) capitalised with the kind of passion which he always reserves for these derby occasions. He really is a true Mancunian, now, in the intensity of what he feels about Manchester City. "Believe me I'd have gone anywhere but there," he said a few years ago when his contract went unrenewed, his future was in doubt and Abu Dhabi wages seemed an obvious attraction. That goal against City two seasons ago is the one he considers his best of all time and the third minute challenge on Yaya Touré yesterday was a screaming declaration of how losing the title to the neighbours actually felt last May. The boot he thrust wildly missed but he wound up kneeing him, just for good measure.
By the time the game was only half done, Rooney had two goals to his name – and those strikes are statistically significant. He becomes the youngest player to reach 150 Premier League goals, which, with Les Ferdinand, makes him the competition's joint-fifth highest scorer. He also eased past Sir Bobby Charlton's United record of 10 derby goals.
"He'll let us know about it, that's for sure," Ferguson said of Rooney's latest accomplishments last night, and though it was one of those gentle, affectionate paternal put-downs of his, you were struck immediately by how rarely the Manchester United manager takes the opportunity to lavish the same kind of praise on Rooney that he freely dispenses to his new striker. "He's unbelievable – his intelligence, his maturity," Ferguson said of Van Persie on Friday. When would he ever use those words for Rooney?
He has his reasons. Rooney's slim pickings in front of goal this season have reopened the debate on whether he has reached the zenith of his powers. Compare how Falcao (27 next February) destroyed Chelsea for Atletico Madrid earlier this season with Rooney (27 in October), whose gashed thigh was considered a "blessing" by a club manager who didn't initially consider him fit to play in August. Ferguson has maintained the conversation about the player's unfulfilled potential by publicly musing on the 27-year-old's metabolism. His "frame", as he euphemistically describes it.
Once again, Van Persie takes the headlines today, with a goal which seemed to be written in stars, given the consistency with which he delivers, and which will ask Mancini some searing questions about the comparative merits of Mario Balotelli – if and when he plays the tape back.
But Van Persie's role was relatively peripheral. Rooney was the one who offered more individually than any other player on the pitch. There was the high technical component of his first goal – running across the face of the area and pivoting to screw back a ball which left Joe Hart statuesque. But more signficant was the reminder that Rooney's best place is in that advanced midfield role, "breaking the lines" and linking play. Roy Hodgson has found this to be his best place for England and it looks much the same for United. Van Persie has been his salvation in this respect, shouldering the burden of responsibility and allowing him to play off the front.
There was remarkable tracking back to be done, too. Box-to-box tends to be the term for players ascending up the field, but around the half-hour mark yesterday, Rooney returned down its full length to defend. It was a vital part of the workload for a United side set up to allow City to come on to them and then break out when the moment came. "You know with Wayne, he needs games. That is why I played him on Wednesday," Ferguson said, explaining the decision to deploy him against Cluj in midweek. Yesterday attested to the wisdom of that judgement, though Wednesday night's support role was less inviting. Rooney rarely looks the player out wide that he does supporting from the centre.
It is time on the ball, in possesion, that Rooney craves, as much now as ever, and there was a boyish enthusiasm about the way he reflected on victory. "Especially with what happened last season, we've waited a long time for this to happen and I'm sure it means everything to everyone at the club and all the fans," he said. "We're delighted that we can celebrate. It's a great day for us to win here, they've had a great home record and to spoil that is a great feeling."
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