Manchester United 2 Newcastle United 0: Rooney hands baton to flourishing Ronaldo in winger's defining stage
Monday 02 October 2006
Unleashed on a defence like he was yesterday, that repertoire of feints and step-overs lent a new hard edge of purpose, it was difficult to disagree with Sir Alex Ferguson when he says that the summer's events were "a defining moment" for Cristiano Ronaldo. If only the Manchester United manager could be quite so certain that Wayne Rooney is not suffering from some form of post-World Cup finals trauma.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the two goals that took his side back to the top of the Premiership yesterday, but there was no doubting the main man. The Portuguese sprite on the left wing was the man who left his marker Stephen Carr reaching out helplessly for handfuls of red jersey or lashing out at his disappearing heels. He used to be the novelty act at United; now it seems that Ronaldo is content only to run the whole show.
The contrasting fortunes of the two young men upon whom United's future, and certainly this season, seems to rest is at the heart of the matter for Ferguson. Ronaldo cracked the woodwork of Newcastle United's goal three times yesterday, he traumatised Carr to the point that when the Irishman was due his second booking for fouling the winger, the referee Mike Dean appeared to take pity. As Ronaldo flourished, Rooney's game seemed to drift into irrelevance.
Certainly, Ferguson needs both on form, and at the very least you would expect Rooney to have been contesting the ownership of a promising free-kick on the edge of a besieged Newcastle area as time ticked away. Instead he rested on his haunches in exhaustion and then wandered away to allow his young comrade another tilt at finding a Newcastle goal he had terrorised all afternoon.
"Marvellous," was Ferguson's instinctive reaction to the first mention of Ronaldo's performance. "But he's been marvellous since the start of the season. Nothing fazes him; he's got such great courage."
As for the World Cup quarter-finals episode, Ferguson suggested that may have been Ronaldo's "defining moment", adding: "But I always expected him to be a great player, I always said that I could only see greatness ahead of him."
That kind of hyperbole does not suit Rooney at the moment and he is not even the one who has to endure every touch being booed by the opposition's fans. There could hardly be a better time to redeem himself than next Saturday against Macedonia when he wears an England shirt for the first time since he planted a boot between the legs of Ricardo Carvalho in Gelsenkirchen three months ago. The events of that torrid, hot afternoon seem to weigh more heavily on him than the team-mate who was his tormentor that day.
The Newcastle manager, Glenn Roeder, was realistic about the threat of Ronaldo, of whom he said: "Everyone is finding it difficult to cope with him at the moment, no matter who Manchester United are playing against."
The 21-year-old was, Roeder said, "not an attractive sight for a full-back when he's running at you - he's just so rapid". Yet four minutes until the interval Newcastle had held firm in a match that only Ronaldo illuminated.
The Newcastle manager had put his faith in that old approach so beloved of Old Trafford's visitors of a five-man midfield with one striker, in this case Shola Ameobi, battling alone in attack. In the centre of midfield Nicky Butt, now 31 and hymned by the home crowd with great feeling, tried to make an important point against his old mate Paul Scholes in midfield and, to a large extent, succeeded.
Coming to Old Trafford without a genuine left-back - never mind the absence of players like Michael Owen, Kieron Dyer and Shay Given - is no easy task but it was in games like these that Newcastle, who remain 13th, would have hoped for much more from Damien Duff. He was eclipsed by Ronaldo on the other left wing and he created the first goal.
Presented with a short corner and nowhere to go in the 41st minute, Ronaldo cut in from the left evading two tackles and halfway across the area pivoted to strike a shot with his right foot that cannoned off the inside of Steve Harper's left post. Solskjaer might call it his powers of anticipation, but he barely had to move to tuck away the opener.
The second required even less effort from the 33-year-old. It came four minutes after half-time when Nemanja Vidic's shot cannoned off him and past Harper. It struck the very same troublesome knee that had kept the Norwegian out of football for much of the past two years and these were his first Premiership goals at Old Trafford since April 2003.
Goals from Solskjaer remind this stadium of a happier, more fruitful time in their history and roused them from a torpor that had settled for much of the first half. United threatened to shatter Newcastle's fragile share of the game - Ronaldo hit the bar, then the post and Scholes chipped wide.
Harper seemed to have got a heroic hand on a Darren Fletcher shot on 71 minutes, actually it was Steven Taylor's arm that touched it wide but no penalty was forthcoming. Presumably that would have been Rooney's chance to break his duck, although given his current run of luck he may have been better off handing it to Solskjaer.
Goals: Solskjaer (41) 1-0; Solskjaer (49) 2-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze (Evra, 31); Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes, Ronaldo; Rooney, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Brown, Saha, O'Shea, Kuszczak (gk).
Newcastle United (4-5-1): Harper; Carr, Taylor, Moore, Ramage; Milner (N'Zogbia h-t), Parker, Butt (Martins, 63), Emre (Pattison, 70), Duff; Ameobi. Substitutes not used: Luque, Krul (gk).
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Booked: Manchester United Scholes; Newcastle United Parker, Carr, Taylor.
Man of the match: Ronaldo.
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