Rooney turns up heat on Chelsea

Manchester United 2 - Portsmouth 1
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The Independent Online

If Chelsea are looking anxiously over their shoulders - and Sir Alex Ferguson insists they are - then the increasingly large image of Manchester United will be intruding upon their view. And in the vanguard will be Wayne Rooney.

If Chelsea are looking anxiously over their shoulders - and Sir Alex Ferguson insists they are - then the increasingly large image of Manchester United will be intruding upon their view. And in the vanguard will be Wayne Rooney.

The England striker scored his 14th and 15th goals of the season to push United to within six points of the Premiership leaders and by the time Jose Mourinho's men play in the League again the gap could be down to three points. Chelsea have an advantage in terms of games played but nothing makes a healthy lead look more sickly than United bearing down.

Not than it was an easy day at the office for Ferguson's team, far from it. Indeed, when Gary O'Neil equalised for struggling Portsmouth it seemed that Ferguson's plans to find Chelsea's blip-side by putting pressure on them were going to implode. But cometh the hour, cometh the boy and, with 10 minutes to go, Rooney got the winner.

Anything that happened yesterday was set against United's defeat by Milan in the Champions' League and the result hung over no one more than Roy Carroll. The Northern Ireland goalkeeper was blamed for the only goal on Wednesday and the price was his place in the side. For one accident-prone goalkeeper, there came another and Tim Howard was restored for his first Premiership start since September. Whether that counted as a dropping is a moot point, because the home side rested Rio Ferdinand, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs but at least one undisputed No 1 was restored and it was perhaps Portsmouth's preoccupation with Ruud van Nistelrooy that led to United taking the lead after eight minutes.

Gary Neville's left foot is not always a thing of beauty but his cross from the right flank was, and with Pompey concentrating on the Dutch striker - Arjan de Zeeuw was climbing all over Van Nistelrooy, Rooney nipped in behind his colleague and won the race to the ball with Andy Griffin to half-volley past Kostas Chalkias with his right foot.

The goal could have acted like a pebble at the start of an avalanche but United are becoming like the fabled British workmen of the Seventies in that they will do enough and no more, and for the rest of the first half they sat in their easy chairs and supped their tea.

Only once did they threaten to stir themselves, after 39 minutes, when Rooney's cross from the left was deftly knocked back by Gary Neville into Cristiano Ronaldo's path. The Portuguese winger is not always noted for his brain and it was absent again as he blazed over.

Such profligacy frequently proves costly and United almost paid for their lackadaisical attitude just before half-time when De Zeeuw was first to Lomana LuaLua's cross, only for the Portsmouth captain to head wide.

You can imagine the word "urgency" crept into Ferguson's team-talk at half-time and no one personifies it more than Alan Smith, who was also returning after injury. But while the former Leeds striker instantly bristled with intent, it was Portsmouth who came out roaring, equalising within two minutes of the restart.

They were helped by United who backed off as Steve Stone broke towards them from central midfield and, although the immediate danger was nullified, the ball ricocheted around the edge of the home area before Wes Brown got his head to it. Even so, it was begging to be whacked and, from a range of 25 yards, O'Neil bent a volley past Howard.

This instantly knocked any nonchalance out of United and their renewed vigour was announced when Rooney unleashed a volley that curled menacingly close to the posts. It was indicative that things were not going to plan for United that Giggs, who is nursing a sore hamstring, was introduced as a substitute after 65 minutes.

In the 81st minute, however, United finally got the goal they needed. Van Nistelrooy turned De Zeeuw and then passed to Rooney, who skipped past Dejan Stefanovic, dummied to shoot to lure Chalkias into committing himself and then rolled the ball into the net.

Such cool from someone so young. It was a goal worthy to win any match.

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