Rooney shows Mourinho who is the better buy

Manchester United 3 - Middlesbrough 0
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The Independent Online

If the singing of the name "Jose Mourinho" to the tune of Santa Lucia, which came from the Middlesbrough compound more or less non-stop, had begun to attack the brain lining of Sir Alex Ferguson there was a beautiful deliverance for the old warhorse.

If the singing of the name "Jose Mourinho" to the tune of Santa Lucia, which came from the Middlesbrough compound more or less non-stop, had begun to attack the brain lining of Sir Alex Ferguson there was a beautiful deliverance for the old warhorse.

The goals from the sometime enfant terrible Wayne Rooney - an exquisitely weighted chip and a volley from the football heavens - would have been utterly remarkable only if they had come from the vast majority of Premiership players.

From Rooney they were merely the latest evidence of talent unique in his generation of English footballers - and fresh confirmation that if Ferguson can indeed guide the teenager through a potentially treacherous celebrity youth, his £28m investment will soon enough seem like the smallest change.

That of course remains a huge challenge, but as Rooney nosed his black sports car through the adoring throng, with a pack of fearless young autograph hunters darting like desperate railroad hobos running in his wake, he surely left Old Trafford with the aura of a young Mercury, the messenger of the gods.

For those who are now so relentlessly examining the minutiae of the rivalry between Ferguson and his brilliant challenger Mourinho, Rooney also left his mentor with one clear victory of nerve and judgement.

When Ferguson signed Rooney in the summer, Mourinho sniffed that he was just as happy with Mateja Kezman, picked up from Dutch football at less than a quarter of the Rooney price. Kezman could do more things, Mourinho told us.

Maybe he could, but then perhaps a whole division of house painters might have made a better job on your kitchen than Picasso.

What Kezman cannot do is something Rooney is no doubt capable of in his sleep. This is reading a football situation in the acute way of only the great players. As Rooney has lurched into various misadventures - none, when you think about it, doing more than inviting the kind of discipline and care needed by any lightly educated youngster who has suddenly had the world heaped at his feet - there has been a tendency to sneer at certain ratings of his ability.

Some have laughed out loud at suggestions that Rooney does indeed have the raw talent to become one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Here, again, they were chastised by their failure to recognise the difference between high talent and intimations of genius. Rooney's goals on Saturday were most stunning simply because they were plainly comfortably within the scope of the talent he unfurled so superbly in the European Championship last summer and his debut for United in the Champions' League. He first did it on a big stage with the goal that shattered Arsenal at Goodison Park a few years ago and persuaded Arsène Wenger, no less, that Rooney was the most gifted young English player he had ever seen.

What is so thrilling about Rooney's game, when he does not appear to be impersonating Harry Enfield's grisly Kevin, is the sheer scale of it. Like all the great players, his perfection is in his effect. He does not permit doubt or argument and his best work is utterly functional, however superbly it is discharged.

Briefly, the goals: Gary Neville played a ball forward into a sea of space left by a desperately poor Middlesbrough. Rooney saw it early and at the same time absorbed the fact that the goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer had strayed dangerously into no man's land. Rooney made a formality of scoring, sending the ball over Schwarzer's head so assuredly it made you reach back down through the Old Trafford years for other moments of such certainty. Then you thought of Sir Bobby Charlton.

The second goal was more spectacular but in its essence just as inevitable. Louis Saha nodded forward the goalkeeper Roy Carroll's downfield kick and the ball dropped for Rooney so perfectly the whole move, and the ensuing volley, could not have been bettered had it been choreographed 100 times.

Middlesbrough, who had shown good iconoclastic form at Old Trafford in the past, had been buried by Rooney's earlier strike, and it was no better than they deserved. They had been made to look leaden and unimaginative long before, Bolo Zenden being denied impressively by Carroll in the one moment of genuine menace to the United goal.

John O'Shea, filling in so well in the midfield that the suspended Roy Keane and the bench-sitting Paul Scholes were never missed, scored with impressive skill in the 10th minute. After that it seemed that Cristiano Ronaldo would be in charge of the entertainment, and naturally he responded to the challenge.

Twice he provided moments that normally would have been savoured thoroughly and exclusively on the way home. One came with a little forward pass of breathtaking touch and judgement. The other was Chaplinesque in its humour. A high pass came in from Rooney. Ronaldo dispatched it with the inside of his heel to Gary Neville while looking in completely the opposite direction. That required an exhilarating belief in his own ability, and with more discipline there is no doubt Ronaldo has the potential to be a major factor in all United's hopes.

However, Rooney soon enough reminded us that the big future most truly belongs to him, if he cares to take it. "They're two of the best goals I've scored in my career. I've got 11 now this season, and I'd like to reach 20." A modest request, the evidence of this game declared, and Wenger might be wise to brace himself at Highbury tomorrow night. In this mood, the kid can do anything.

Goals: O'Shea (10) 1-0; Rooney (67) 2-0; Rooney (82) 3-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Heinze (Silvestre, 78); Ronaldo (Miller, 71), P Neville, O'Shea, Fortune; Rooney, Giggs (Saha, 65). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Scholes.

Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Reiziger, Southgate, Cooper (McMahon, 78), Queudrue; Morrison, Parlour, Doriva (Job, h-t), Zenden, Downing; Hasselbaink (Graham, 84). Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Parnaby.

Referee: S Dunn (Gloucestershire).

Man of the match: Rooney.

Attendance: 67,251.

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