Maturing Rooney looks free and easy

Rooney is the new Beckham before the old one has faded away and when you do not turn 20 until tomorrow it is a profile that would sit heavily on anyone so young.

When Rooney errs he is not allowed to be human, yet he seems to be becoming more comfortable in Wayne's goldfish bowl world. His dealings with the press are more relaxed where once the strain would be manifest, and on the pitch there is often an unworried air about the boy in the man's body.

Free in United's 4-4-1-1 formation yesterday, he could have been the child in the playground, unfettered by concerns and free to add his brushstrokes to the canvas whenever he could. In truth, it was more Rolf than Renoir because this was an untidy performance, but no one could say he was gripped with tension.

Like United as a whole, he was sloppy with his passing, caught too frequently in possession and in the first half he was more notable for his energy than his expertise. At one moment he was blocking an attempt at a cross in the corner, the next running 50 yards to speed past Aaron Lennon and win back the ball he had given away.

Watching Rooney as Alan Smith Mark Two is like paying to see Darcey Bussell perform a clog dance, however, so it was a relief that Old Trafford did get a chance to savour a moment of pure talent on yet another afternoon of frustration. A pass was played low and hard to Rooney, whose flick to Ruud van Nistelrooy was close to perfection. Its genius lay not only in that he used the outside of his heel to find the right direction but also to cushion the ball for the right weight.

That was the highlight of a game that searched in vain for real inspiration; the dark side of the Rooney penny was exposed when he was booked for hacking Lennon down.

As for his goal threat, that was limited to a shot that owed more to ambition than accuracy but had it gone in it would have been United's 1,000th goal in the Premiership, a milestone of note for any player. Not that Rooney needs to make a name for himself.

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