Charlton Athletic 1 Manchester United 3

Rooney is the inspiration as United shine
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The first encounter in the post-Keane epoch and Sir Alex Ferguson had the sweet satisfaction of victory and the sight of a goal from one of those so severely criticised by the now former Manchester United captain - plus two from the man now wearing the armband, Ruud van Nistelrooy.

That amounted to a ringing vindication for Alan Smith and Van Nistelrooy but it meant most of all to Ferguson. He knew that nothing less than victory would prevent the fiercest of firestorms following Keane's astonishing departure.

"It was a terrific result for us," Ferguson said. "No question about that. We could not afford a defeat." But then this manager has raged so hard against the dying of his own light that it should surprise no one that, once more, he induced a spark bright enough here to fuel belief that there is something after the passing of Roy Keane's cyclonic career. United will have to carry it on against Villareal in the Champions' League on Tuesday. "It's vital," said Ferguson who conceded that it had been "a difficult week". "But it's the nature of our club that we have difficult weeks from time to time," he added.

That was a breathtaking understatement, and Ferguson's insistence that Keane's departure was "amicable" had to be taken with a pinch of salt. Van Nistelrooy, the first United player to speak about it all, put the episode into context, revealing that he needed time to deal with the "big shock". The Dutchman added: "Roy will always be remembered as the greatest player to have played for the club. His leadership and quality of play and character will always be with us. He is the best player I have ever played with." Van Nistelrooy said the players had also been "motivated to do well" by Keane's departure, but no one believes that Smith is his heir. Apart from the scoring of his first goal of the season before the break, which Smith swept home after being set up by Darren Fletcher following a slick passing move, the converted striker did indeed appear the bewildered presence criticised by Keane. So, instead, it is surely Wayne Rooney, who carried the torch with an intuitive, threatening display, who will become the new talisman, if not the tactical replacement.

It helped United's cause that they faced a Charlton side deflated by two successive defeats, which had cut short their early season promise. Significantly, Danny Murphy had a poor game. If he doesn't play well, neither do Charlton.

United have not lost to them since Keane was a teenager at Nottingham Forest and Ferguson was struggling to establish himself at Old Trafford. Charlton played well enough in patches although Ferguson claimed, over-generously, that Alan Curbishley's side would perform worse and win. United wasted chances to put them further behind by the break. Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo missed good openings and Van Nistelrooy had a shot cleared off the line.At the other end, Darren Bent crudely struck wide following a free-kick.

After the break, United stepped off the gas and Charlton capitalised. With the visiting defenders distracted due to an injury to Mikaël Silvestre, Darren Ambrose swapped passes with Bent and looped a wonderful left-footed shot beyond a bemused Edwin van der Sar. United's response, led by Rooney, was immediate and impressive. He brilliantly tricked his way past three challenges and bull-dozed through another before flicking the ball to Van Nistelrooy who swivelled in the area and volleyed into the roof of the net. "An unbelievable finish," said Ferguson.

Charlton still pushed on but Van Nistelrooy was not to be denied. He seized the ball, bore down on goal and, from 20 yards, struck a low shot through the legs of Talal El Karkouri and beyond goalkeeper Stephan Andersen, who made a hash of his attempted save.

The goal took Van Nistelrooy to the top of the scoring charts and, bizarrely, was also the first of his 138 goals in 190 games for United to be struck from outside the penalty box. Quite a feat.