The destinies of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo have been bound together once before in a World Cup season, with a certain dismissal and a wink as England's hopes of glory were extinguished three years ago. That was the endgame played out in Germany but as a new season unfolds we have evidence already that the world's most expensive player may have laid the groundwork for a tournament to remember for England's most potent striker. Freed from the yoke of the left wing by Ronaldo's departure, Rooney has finally been allocated that small area of turf in the penalty area which he has so coveted and his natural instinct for finding space there is proving as valuable for Sir Alex Ferguson as he always told him it would be.
Alex McLeish, the vanquished Birmingham manager put it best last night when he placed Rooney in the same bracket as Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini. "We've seen them over the years, players who drop into all the little pockets and are hard to pin down," McLeish said. "If he faces up you have to watch out, he has a vicious shot on him." Last season, it took Rooney until October to score twice but yesterday's instinctive strike, the striker pouncing on the rebound having leapt acrobatically to head Nani's fine 34th-minute cross on to a post, takes him there already, if you count his Community Shield goal too.
Rooney has that tendency to score in spurts but he is looking like a 30-goals-a-season man already. "A very significant total this season," is what Sir Alex Ferguson said he expected, last night. "He is capable of , we've seen that. It's not impossible."
While Rooney stands a goal short of 100 for United, Michael Owen would give the earth for just one. The anticipation he showed to react to Rooney's cushioned chest pass and race through on goal in second-half injury time shows that he has an understanding with Rooney which Berbatov – despite his markedly better workrate – does not. Time stood still at Old Trafford as Owen advanced but the ensuing miss – Owen snatching nervily where in days past he would have skipped past Joe Hart – was agonising. "He will get his goal and it will set him on the road," his manager said.
Hart's alertness was a contributory factor though and part of an absorbing subplot involving him and Ben Foster, contenders for the England goalkeeping jersey next summer. "I know it's his ambition to play in the World Cup, and what better incentive?" McLeish said of the 22-year-old who is keeping the established Maik Taylor out.
Foster knows from his experiences in the relegated Watford side of three years ago that Hart's year-long loan from Manchester City will provide a chance to catch the eye. Each matched the other, save for save; Hart leaping to palm over a 12-yard chip from Rooney in the first quarter of an hour and to parry wide a 45-yard shot the striker let go in the first minute of the second half. Rooney's industry was endless. Foster responded with something marginally finer – palming wide after Wes Brown had allowed Christian Benitez to spring United's offside trap. "Benitez denies United": the headline writers were denied an opportunity too. It was a save which atoned for Foster's shaky Community Shield performance. "I think he has learned from last week, which was an unusually nervy performance from him," Ferguson said.
United's 10 clean sheets delivered them the title last season and Ferguson, who said he would "take eight 1-0s," was right to take some pleasure because James McFadden and Cameron Jerome were threatening and it took a gravity defying headed goalline clearance from Patrice Evra to keep out Franck Queudrue's header. There are more defensive challenges ahead. Rio Ferdinand will be missing for at least two weeks after sustaining a thigh injury in training on Friday and Jonny Evans, who has had ankle and groin trouble, was withdrawn injured though Ferguson hopes Nemanja Vidic will be fit for Wigan on Saturday.
Nani's removal at half-time is another concern as the 22-year-old is United's new tale of the unexpected. And eclipsing all but Rooney was Darren Fletcher, at 25, two years older than the matchwinner but starting to set the world on fire in United's midfield nearly a decade after joining as a trainee. The new banners for the Old Trafford entrance, replacing those which depicted a grinning Ryan Giggs and others clutching the European Cup, extol the virtues of the Manchester United Soccer Schools. "Learn to play the United Way," they state. A prescient message considering what the Ferguson youth are providing. Did someone say Ronaldo was missing?
Manchester United (4-4-2): Foster; F Da Silva, O'Shea, Evans (Brown, 75), Evra; Valencia, Fletcher, Scholes, Nani (Giggs, h-t); Rooney, Berbatov (Owen, 75). Substitutes not used: Anderson, Gibson, Kuszczak (gk), De Laet.
Birmingham City (4-1-4-1) Hart; Carr, R Johnson, Queudrue, Vignal; Carsley (Benitez, 75); Larsson (O'Shea, 82), Ferguson, Fahey, McFadden; Jerome (O'Connor, 65). Substitutes not used: Maik Taylor (gk), O'Connor, Phillips, McSheffrey, Parnaby.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).
Booked: Birmingham City Vignal; Manchester Utd Fletcher.
Man of the match: Rooney.