The predicted goal feast never quite worked out but there was plenty of indication that four was a good score against a Derby side showing fresh commitment under their new manager, Paul Jewell.
Perhaps Derby have stopped the rot, though there was a risk of rising damp for all concerned in the teeming rain and mud. Certainly Derby's large following celebrated their team's first goal away from home this season as if it was a Wembley winner but, once they had gone in front five minutes before the interval, United were firmly in control.
The only criticism of United is that Sir Alex Ferguson opted to take his foot off the pedal with second-half substitutions which were allowing the match to meander until the first minute of added time when Cristiano Ronaldo went down in the penalty area under the combined attentions of Claude Davis and Tyrone Mears. The Portuguese player got up, resisted the temptation to permit Carlos Tevez the opportunity of a hat-trick and took the kick himself, dispatching it as coolly as ever for his 14th goal of the season.
Ferguson pronounced himself "satisfied" with the performance. "It wasn't anywhere near what we are capable of, because of the conditions," was his verdict. The conditions were not to the liking of Wayne Rooney, whose removal of gloves for the second half indicated a lowering of interest, but you can always rely on the eager Tevez.
Ferguson fielded what could be argued was his strongest line-up, or it would have been had Owen Hargreaves not damaged a knee in the warm-up, Michael Carrick replacing him. There was a risk of further damage to United limbs in the fashion Derby committed themselves to the tackle and the chase, but they escaped with one yellow card in the first half, against Davis for a blatant block on Rooney.
The away fans, who had happily chortled "We are Derby, we are crap", were beginning to get genuinely excited as their side neared half-time still holding their distinguished hosts. What's more, they had tested Edwin van der Sar's reactions to the skidding ball with shots by Giles Barnes and James McEveley.
Rooney appeared to lose heart after missing two fine openings, the first when he was badly placed for a volley from the excellent Anderson's cross, and the second when Ryan Giggs sent him clear. Rooney did most of the job perfectly, drawing Stephen Bywater and forcing the keeper to commit himself before chipping him impudently, only to see the ball bounce back off the foot of a post.
By this time United had gone in front with Giggs' 100th League goal for the club. More fine work by Anderson on the left concluded with Ronaldo unleashing a fierce shot which Bywater could only parry to the United captain, who scored easily. Then, right on half-time, Ronaldo took a free-kick, projecting it gently into the penalty zone ruck. Perhaps surprised, McEveley made a mess of his attempted clearance and the ever-ready Tevez pounced to smash the loose ball home.
Before departing, Barnes contributed another hopeful moment for the visitors with an awkwardly bouncing shot which Van der Sar was happy to turn round the post . But it was United who continued to pull the strings and Giggs was desperately unlucky to see a first-time volley from Wes Brown's cross come back off the base of a post.
Brown's next involvement was more productive. He slid the ball into the area and Dean Leacock made the mistake of standing off, permitting Tevez the fraction of time and space he required to tuck away his low shot.
Then came Derby's high moment, a goal after 11 hours 57 minutes of barren endeavour. Mears galloped down the right, Van der Sar mistimed his intercepting rush and Steve Howard got enough boot on the ball to send it gently into the net, with Nemanja Vidic in vain pursuit.
That appeared to bring down the damp curtain until Ronaldo's intervention. United are in Rome on Wednesday, with Ferguson promising to give the second string a chance with both clubs having qualified for the next stage of the Champions' League.Reuse content