Rooney's cool execution steels United for challenge

Manchester United 2 - Portsmouth 1
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The Independent Football

Like the good former player he is, Joe Jordan came bearing gifts of hope for Manchester United. Yes, they can win the Premiership. Yes, they can overturn Milan's 1-0 advantage in the Champions' League. And yes, he is applying to become a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

Actually, the last sentence is a fib, but he might as well be such was his generosity of spirit, even to the extent of protecting the player who had ushered Jordan's Portsmouth side nearer to the wrong end of the Premiership. He could have damned Wayne Rooney with extravagant praise, yet he was anxious to avoid piling even more expectation on 19-year-old shoulders.

To the question about what Rooney might do to Milan in San Siro, he backed away. "To answer that would put pressure on him right away," he replied. "There are other players who are young, too, who could be match winners. Like Cristiano Ronaldo."

You could see Jordan, a teenage striker who was highly rated himself in his playing days, trying to walk a fine line, which was made razor-blade thin because Rooney had played his most complete game in a United shirt, brandishing the field marshal's baton as well as sniping successfully from the front line.

His first goal was a meeting of timing and power, a snap half-volley that shot past Konstas Chalkias in the Portsmouth goal before he could move. The second was simply a masterpiece of execution in circumstances when heads, particularly young ones, are designed to burn hot.

United's hopes of introducing Chelsea to doubt at the top of the Premiership were crumbling as Gary O'Neil's equaliser brought them back to 1-1. Then Ruud van Nistelrooy, starting a match for the first time in three months, turned Arjan de Zeeuw and delivered a pass that invited Rooney to run at Dejan Stefanovic.

The first decision was down to instinct, instant control and a glide beyond the centre-back, but the hard bit came next. Should he shoot? Should he run further? Ronaldo, a fantastic talent without ice running through his veins, would still be pondering the matter this morning, but Rooney took another touch, shaped his body to convince Chalkias a shot was coming early and then passed the ball in.

It was a glorious goal that overcame even Jordan's circumspection "He had to make maybe three decisions but they're made like that," he said, snapping his fingers, "and that's why he rolled the ball in the net.

"You can't blame the goalkeeper," the former United and Milan player added, "because he's been outmanoeuvred, out-thought and the credit goes to the striker."

Rooney's goal ensured that United cut Chelsea's lead to six points and, such is the craven subservience of the football authorities to their television masters, that gap could be cut to three if Sir Alex Ferguson's side beat Crystal Palace before Chelsea get a chance to take on Norwich City at teatime next Saturday.

Sky, of course, would be delighted if their schedules bring an element of competition to what so far has threatened to be a one-horse race, and, to be fair, the average football supporter (you know the sort, the forgotten breed who go to matches and have no chance of getting home for 5.15) would probably agree with them.

"No one wants the Premiership to be won by nine points," Jordan said. "You want it to be close."

Nothing is more likely to produce that than United's red shirts bearing down on the leaders.

Goals: Rooney (8) 1-0; O'Neil (47) 1-1; Rooney (81) 2-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard; G Neville (Smith, h-t), Brown, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo, P Neville, O'Shea, Scholes (Giggs, 65); Rooney, Van Nistelrooy (Fortune, 85). Substitutes not used: Ricardo (gk), Saha.

Portsmouth (4-4-2): Chalkias; Griffin, De Zeeuw, Stefanovic, Taylor; O'Neil (Kamara, 84), Stone, Hughes (Mezague, 54), Skopelitis; Yakubu, LuaLua. Substitutes not used: Hislop (gk), Primus, Fuller.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

Booked: Manchester United P Neville; Portsmouth: Taylor, Griffin.

Man of the match: Rooney.

Attendance: 67,989.

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