Rooney's back but without a bang

Manchester United 2 Wigan Athletic 0: Fans welcome striker home with open arms but United look unconvincing against nine-man Latics
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The Independent Online

Anyone here yesterday hoping to find out what effect an extra few million pounds in his pay packet might have on Wayne Rooney would have been disappointed.

Rooney made his first appearance at Manchester United's home since questioning the club's ambition and asking to leave before agreeing a new contract said to be worth £250,000 per week. But a 36-minute cameo as a substitute in another low-key performance by United gave no clue as to any possible return to form on the part of the England forward.

At least the question of his reception by the United crowd after his apparent show of disloyalty was answered. They cheered as he warmed up, roared as he took the field in the second half, and applauded him off at the end. But he failed to add to his meagre tally of one goal for United since March: a header that drew a save from Ali Al-Habsi, the Wigan goalkeeper, and a couple of passes were the sum of his contributions to a poor match.

"It was a quiet comeback for him," Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "He needed that 25 minutes or so and he'll play against Rangers on Wednesday night. That's the perfect game for him to come back in."

In theory, Rooney could not have wished for more compliant opponents against whom to strut his stuff than Wigan Athletic. Roberto Martinez's team have never managed so much as a draw against United in 12 meetings and yesterday played the last half-hour with nine men after losing the discipline that had made them marginally the better side for the first 60 minutes. Antolin Alcaraz, their captain, was sent off after receiving a second yellow card and Hugo Rodallega was shown a straight red for a two-footed challenge on Rafael da Silva, but United never looked dominant.

Patrice Evra gave them the lead against the run of play in first-half injury time, with his first goal since scoring against Roma in April 2007, and Javier Hernandez headed a second, but this was another unconvincing display by a team that would surely be out of contention if their rivals could show the same consistent ability to pick up points. Nevertheless, it was enough to take them above Arsenal into second place in the Premier League, level on points with Chelsea but six goals worse off.

"If you'd said at the start, 'Would we take being joint-top of the League at the end of the day?', we'd have said yes," Ferguson said. "We know that, come the second half of the season we get better, and at this moment all you need is to be in there."

Ferguson had rested Dimitar Berbatov, who had failed to score in his nine previous games, but Federico Macheda and Gabriel Obertan made little impression as United stuttered through the first half-hour.

Ferguson tried to liven up the home crowd by sending Rooney out to warm up, but if anything, it seemed to lift Wigan rather than United. Charles N'Zogbia launched a run through the heart of United's defence that left him facing only Edwin van der Sar, but at too tight an angle to beat the goalkeeper, and the same player later appeared to be fouled by Nemanja Vidic as he charged into the area.

Having contributed very little for 45 minutes, United scored with their first effort on target, Evra arriving unmarked at the far post to head home a long, hanging cross from Park Ji-sung on the right.

But United still struggled for fluency even when Wigan went down to 10 with the departure of Alcaraz for a foul on Darren Fletcher, and then nine after Rodallega's ill-judged lunge. Even so, a second goal was inevitable. Rooney nearly got it when he outjumped the taller Steve Gohouri but Al-Habsi saved, and instead itwas Hernandez, another substitute, who dived to head home Da Silva's cross.

The defeat leaves Wigan in the bottom three, but Martinez is not worried – yet. "We should have controlled ourselves better," he said. "It would have been easy to feel sorry for ourselves, but I saw real steel, which gives us a platform for the rest of the season."

Attendance: 74,181

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Man of the match: Evra

Match rating: 3/10

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