Rooney recovers scoring touch to keep United ahead of the pack

Manchester United 3 Aston Villa 1
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When Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in his programme notes last night that the goalscoring target he "had in mind" for Wayne Rooney this season was a meagre 10 goals it could be interpreted as an act of solidarity or a judicious bit of provocation.

Either way it worked out nicely for Ferguson. Rooney scored the first of his two goals in 49 seconds and was only denied a hat-trick in the last two minutes of the match by a brilliant save from Brad Friedel, one of many from the Aston Villa goalkeeper.

The mystery of Rooney's goalscoring, which has all but disappeared since his injury against Bayern Munich at the end of March last year, is a touchy subject at Old Trafford but his form has been returning in recent weeks and the goals have followed at last. Last night's were his first from open play in the stadium since that game against Bayern and bring his total to the season to five.

Before the game, Ferguson had grumbled about the criticism his striker had endured for "lagging behind in the goal stakes" which the Scot conceded was the case "compared to the bucketload he scored last year". "I am not worried," added Ferguson. "It's the scoring partnership that matters – if we finish the season with [Dimitar] Berbatov scoring 30 and Wayne on 10 – and those are the targets I have in mind – I will be more than happy."

Ferguson might be happy with that but it was hard to imagine Rooney feeling the same as he read through his manager's thoughts before the game. This season he has been very much the support act in his partnership with Berbatov but last night he stepped out of the shadow from the first minute when he pulled goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar's long ball out of the air and smashed it past Friedel.

The Villa manager Gérard Houllier said it was Rooney who "made the difference". "They have managed to win a lot of games and remain unbeaten without him. With him? Phew. He was on top of his game [last night]. He had everything: control, turning, twisting. He defends and works hard. When you press that Sky button to follow one single player, young kids should do that with Rooney."

As for United, this was 29 consecutive games unbeaten in the league, which equals the club record, and with 19th-placed Wolves away on Saturday you would not bet against them surpassing it. They are five points clear of Arsenal in second place with 14 games of the season left and they are starting to dispose of good teams, like Villa, with considerable ease.

Nevertheless, it was Houllier's side who opened the door to United within the first minute. Ferguson called it "a fantastic bit of vision" from Van der Sar who struck a free-kick from just outside his area that sailed over the head of Richard Dunne. The Villa defender had not quite tracked Rooney's run back towards goal and the rest was pretty straightforward.

Afterwards, Ferguson conceded that the lack of goals over the last 10 months were "bound" to play on Rooney's mind. "But he still has the appetite to play – the fact that he never stops playing, it's bred in the lad," the United manager added. "You can't criticise him when he gives that effort. Wayne Rooney was fantastic, they all were."

The peerless Ryan Giggs stood out again, not least when, with two minutes of the game left, he chased, tackled and harassed Ashley Young off the ball. The Villa winger is the latest candidate in a long line of potential successors to Giggs on the United left wing. But last night it was hard to discern which of the two was the man who is supposed to be on his way out.

Bowed by that early goal, Villa struggled to make any impression in attack in the first half. Darren Bent had two timid shots worthy of the name only insomuch as they were in the direction of the United goal. Young barely showed up before half-time.

Dunne had a bad night and a clumsy collision with Nani on 18 minutes in the penalty area was indicative of him living dangerously. Alongside him, James Collins was not much better. He almost fell victim to the same kind of long ball over the top to Rooney that did for Dunne.

Just before half-time Collins was at fault for United's second goal after Nani won the ball on the right. In the area, Rooney peeled off to lurk on Collins' blindside and Nani bent his cross into the perfect spot for the striker to put away his second goal.

The early sign in the second half that Houllier's side might be reviving was a good run down the left from Marc Albrighton in which he exchanged passes with Young, cut inside and put a decent ball into Bent, who was blocked by Evra. It was a start, although the goal Villa's new centre-forward scored on 58 minutes was rather more than they deserved at that point.

The United defence was caught square and too far advanced by Stewart Downing's run in behind them down the right. So too, Bent was permitted to run untracked into the United area where he tidied up the kind of chance that he has thrived on his whole career for his second goal in three league games for Villa.

United came back again. Giggs' cross on 63 minutes was won by Nemanja Vidic, who knocked the ball down to Rooney in the area and the Serbian then thumped the lay-off past Friedel from close range.

Although Young struck the bar with a cross after United's third goal there was not a lot of conviction from Villa that there was much left in the game for them. There were more chances for United before Friedel saved brilliantly to prevent Rooney scoring a hat-trick in the final two minutes. He would have deserved it.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Fletcher (Anderson, 34), Carrick, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Substitutes not used Owen, Smalling, Hernandez, F Da Silva, Lindegaard (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-1-1): Friedel; Walker, Dunne, Collins, Clark; Albrighton (Heskey, 69), Makoun, Petrov (Agbonlahor 74), Downing (Reo-Coker 80); A Young; Bent. Substitutes not used Pires, Delfouneso, Cuellar, Marshall (gk).

Man of the match Rooney

Match rating 6/10

Referee C Foy (Merseyside).

Attendance 75,256.