Time for Rooney and Ronaldo to grow up and lift United challenge

Manchester United 3 Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Online

Reports of Chelsea's metronomic progress in the title race that is supposed to be over already punctuated United's gadfly destruction of Villa. As the goal flashes from Stamford Bridge came in like the clucking of a displeased schoolmaster, Sir Alex Ferguson's team were so irritating because they were so close to being sublimely good.

Reports of Chelsea's metronomic progress in the title race that is supposed to be over already punctuated United's gadfly destruction of Villa. As the goal flashes from Stamford Bridge came in like the clucking of a displeased schoolmaster, Sir Alex Ferguson's team were so irritating because they were so close to being sublimely good.

So step forward for the cane - or maybe the hairdryer - Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.

At times both of them made the difference in class look so wide we might have been back in Exeter, where in midweek they surely broke the world record in wasted opportunities. Here, though, it was ultimately the same story. The sheer law of averages prevailed, at least on this particular scoreline. What they could not do, though, was cast any real light on that popular theory that Jose Mourinho's shock force have cornered the Premiership prize at unprecedented speed.

If Mourinho's suggestion that the title is already Chelsea's can be disputed in terms of simple logic, there was nothing in the spasmodic bouts of brilliance from the profligate boys to weaken his case this day. While Chelsea picked apart the football department store otherwise known as Portsmouth, United spent most of the afternoon throwing away the chance to bury often feeble opposition.

It was this that most worked against any belief that United, despite a build-up of impressive statistics, can capture the game-in, game-out consistency which is so implicit in all of Chelsea's work.

In the past United have worn down the likes of Newcastle and Arsenal with the sheer volume of their self-belief, but against Villa there was rarely a hint of such massive conviction.

Some say this week's Carling Cup semi-final second leg will give United the chance to inflict the kind of psychological damage on Chelsea they imprinted all over Arsenal last October when they ended the Highbury club's unbeaten run, but if you believe this you will also buy the idea that Mourinho sometimes walks into a room without quite knowing what to say.

Chelsea and United are in sharply different places not because of random moments of strength or weakness but because one of the teams has struck a wonderful and currently unbreakable rhythm. If United are to challenge the status quo - and with Rio Ferdinand back in the team, Ruud van Nistelrooy due next month, and the force of history, they have reasons enough to believe it might just happen - they have to expel all the looseness which marked this latest performance.

The model came as early as the eighth minute. Ronaldo launched United with tremendous authority, feeding nervelessly on a chance created by a defence-shattering one-two from Roy Keane and the silky Louis Saha. Forty-five minutes later United were back where they started when Gary Neville gave Gareth Barry time and space to shoot beyond Roy Carroll. The United goalkeeper berated Neville, but he might as well have reproduced the general diatribe Ferguson had no doubt delivered at half-time.

United were paying, outrageously, not for one piece of lax defence but an entire mindset. Rooney and Ronaldo are the best examples of why United, for all their resources, face such a massive challenge in pulling back Chelsea. One minute the youngsters explain why Ferguson was persuaded to part with a combined total of £40m for their services. The next they are behaving like those schoolboys with the attention-span problem.

When Rooney was left free in front of goal by Paul Scholes - a marvellously clinical piece of returned generosity after the wunderkind's uncanny headed pass to his England team-mate against Croatia during the European Championship - the beating of Thomas Sorensen should have been a formality for the most basically equipped pro. Instead, we saw a first touch of calamitous negligence.

Negligence also marked much of Ronaldo's work. Later, Ferguson praised the Portuguese virtuoso for his "outstanding" display of the season, and it was true that in all the extravagance and waste, there were some heart-stopping moments. Also, another vital contribution to go along with that first, beautifully weighted strike. After Saha put United back into the lead, after an eruption from Rooney, Ronaldo performed still another flurry of step-overs before driving the ball in and out of Sorensen's hands for Scholes to tap in.

Such moments of brilliance can only serve to increase frustration levels. Ronaldo's talent is extraordinary, but so much of his work is exasperating. In vital phases of games that need to be won a Ronaldo step-over seems about as appropriate as levity at an inquest. "When he does that," observed one old pro, "he only increases the chances of things going wrong." At best it is a harmless confection; at worst, it suggests a flippant use of fine talent. Either way, it does not shout out the presence of a mature and compelling young footballer.

In Rooney's case the problem seems rather less complicated. The challenge for Ferguson is to get the boy's head in the right place for most of the time. The destruction of opposing defences would then be inevitable.

On a day when the struggling Roy Keane, so masterful against Liverpool a week earlier, collected his fifth yellow card of the season - and a suspension which keeps him out of next Saturday's FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough - United's most concentrated display, not for the first time this season, came from Gabriel Heinze.

He is a hard, fastidious player, and if United are to find a place in the corner of Mourinho's eye they could do worse than take Heinze as an example. In all things, that is, except falling to the ground as though near to death. He is better at giving than receiving, a point Nolberto Solano mimed at great length but with some justice.

Goals: Ronaldo (8) 1-0; Barry (53) 1-1; Saha (69) 2-1; Scholes (70) 3-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Fletcher (Fortune, 45), Keane, Scholes (O'Shea, 73), Ronaldo; Rooney (Giggs, 73), Saha. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Brown.

Aston Villa (4-5-1): Sorensen; Delaney (De la Cruz, 11), Mellberg, Ridgewell, Samuel; Davis, Berson (Hitzlsperger, 45), Solano (L Moore, 74), Hendrie, Barry; Angel. Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Cole.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

Booked: Manchester United Keane, Ronaldo; Aston Villa Berson, Ridgewell, Hendrie, Samuel, Solano.

Man of the match: Heinze.

Attendance: 67,859.

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