Wayne Rooney does not often make the kind of mistake that costs Manchester United a goal and when he did so yesterday he put his head in his hands and glanced guiltily at the dugout. Fortunately for United, there are few players better at putting things right.
It was Rooney who carelessly gave away the ball that led to the penalty for Hull's equaliser and it was Rooney who inspired United's subsequent fightback that won them the game. Even the very best players are prone to the odd slip-up but there is no denying that Rooney is a useful man to have in a crisis of his own making.
As United reached the halfway point of the season they have reason to be thankful for their No 10. They are only one point short of the total of 41 points that they had amassed after 19 games last season and they have closed the gap on the leaders Chelsea to two points. After the game, Rooney called it a "mad league" but where United are concerned, the title race tends to take on an irresistible logic.
As Chelsea stumbled once again and Aston Villa were stopped in their tracks at the Emirates, so United took another stride forward. Amid the anomalous results affecting the big four we await one team to take the title race by the scruff of the neck. Yesterday, Rooney showed that he is, at the very least, capable of taking control of the destiny of important games.
Rooney said afterwards that he was more worried about Ferguson's reaction to his mistake that led to the award of a penalty scored by Craig Fagan. But fear of Ferguson alone cannot inspire the kind of performance that Rooney put in after his mistake before the hour. For that you need to be a very special kind of footballer.
Rooney had already scored United's first before referee Alan Wiley harshly penalised Rafael da Silva for a shove on Jozy Altidore and gave Hull a penalty that breathed life into the game. After Fagan scored the penalty it was Rooney whose cross led to Andy Dawson's own goal and it was Rooney's beautifully-weighted pass that Dimitar Berbatov prodded in for the third goal.
That is not to say that United are in the kind of form where they are liable to crush all before them. They were lucky at times yesterday. Wiley, refereeing his first United game since Ferguson questioned the official's fitness after a game at Sunderland, did not give Hull a penalty for Wes Brown's trip on Richard Garcia. Patrice Evra was fortunate not to be sent off when, already booked, he first punched the ball away in anger and then cynically dragged Fagan down.
This was not United at full throttle but there are signs that a new sense of order has been imposed since that defeat to Fulham before Christmas. Nemanja Vidic returned to lend the defence new authority and, crucially, that allowed Darren Fletcher to play in central midfield. Rather than go to pieces when Hull drew level, United picked them off in vintage style.
This was a fine performance from Phil Brown's team but as the manager himself pointed out, it will matter little if they cannot repeat it against Bolton Wanderers tomorrow. In the first half especially, his team had a handful of chances to score and did not take them. "It is no good to bring that kind of commitment against the top four and getting nothing for your efforts and then not doing it against Bolton," Brown said.
Wes Brown was back in the United team and his tackle on Garcia in the 21st minute looked like a penalty, although it took three replays and three different camera angles to see exactly what it was the Hull players were so upset about. In defence of Wiley it was a tough one to spot, however close to the action he was.
Having missed at least six good first-half chances to take the lead, United scored at the end of the first half. Fletcher scurried after an overhit kick that went out to the right and his ball in was missed by three Hull defenders before Rooney forced it in from close range.
Before then, Hull had defended heroically and had a decent chance to score through Seyi Olofinjana but it was saved by Tomasz Kuszczak. They scored the equaliser when Rooney's lazy backpass put in Fagan. The Hull striker went wide and chipped to the back post where Rafael was judged to have pushed Altidore as they challenged for the ball. It was Fagan who scored the penalty and from then on Rooney made it his personal mission to sort things out.
First, Rooney crossed from the right for Dawson to score in his own net under pressure from Park Ji-Sung; the end of a move that stretched from box to box. Then, with eight minutes left, Rooney broke on the opposite side of the pitch and threaded the ball through three Hull players for Berbatov to tap in the third. Rooney had done his penance.
Hull City (4-4-2): Myhill; Mendy, Zayatte, Gardner, Dawson; Garcia (Vennegoor of Hesselink, 78), Boateng (Geovanni, 83), Olofinjana, Hunt; Altidore (Ghilas, 83), Fagan. Substitutes not used: Barmby, Duke (gk), Kilbane, Ghilas, Cairney.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; R Da Silva, Vidic, Brown, Evra; Valencia (Park, 63), Fletcher, Carrick, Giggs (Obertan, 78); Rooney, Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Owen, Foster (gk), Welbeck, F Da Silva, De Laet.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Manchester United Evra.
Man of the match: Rooney.
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