Wigan Athletic 1 Manchester United 3: Rooney roars back into form with display of selfless perfection

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Paul Jewell turned away from the sublime when he was trying to sum up the essence of Wayne Rooney. Instead, he concentrated on a move that went wrong.

Manchester United were 2-1 up and Rooney had the chance to shoot as he ran past Arjan de Zeeuw in the right of the area and bore down on the Wigan Athletic goal. He thought about it, sensed that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in a better position, and passed.

In that moment, even though Solskjaer's shot was blocked, Jewell recognised a higher quality. "Wayne Rooney showed his true colours," the Wigan manager said. "He squared it because he thinks more of his team-mates than he does of himself. That speaks volumes. If that's the best player in the world, and in my opinion he is, the first thing he thinks about is not getting his name in the paper, it's getting his team to the top of the League."

A few days earlier, Rooney's generosity would have been viewed in a very different light and you can imagine the accusations of responsibility dodging if he had been still showing signs of a shortage of touch and confidence. After this performance, however, there was not a soul in the JJB Stadium who believed he has permanently surrendered his gifts. Samson has his strength back, and talks to extend his contract beyond 2010 began yesterday.

The beauty of this game was that a study of the young striker was akin to those speeded-up films of flowers in spring. You saw the bud begin to open when he turned Leighton Baines inside out before hitting the bar in the 24th minute, and by stoppage time we had a full flowering as he executed a back-heel to usher Solskjaer towards his fifth goal of the season. By that time, Rooney's body language was screaming: "I'm back".

Which was fortunate for his team, because United were woeful in the first half. Wes Brown could not have located a team-mate with radar, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra exuded uncertainty, and a 4-3-3 formation looked likely to become as much of a problem for Sir Alex Ferguson as 3-5-2 has for Steve McClaren. The 30-yard thunderbolt from Baines that gave Wigan the lead was the least the visitors could have expected.

The introduction of Ryan Giggs and 4-4-2 was like flicking a switch. Wigan were run off their feet and the visitors could have doubled their score. "There's a momentum about us," Ferguson said with a smile. Jewell, who was seen his team win only once this season, could only watch with a mixture of horror and awe.

He believes the worst scenario for United will be second place - "They look sensational, they appear to have goals all over the team" - but the ambitions for his team are more prosaic.

"I don't take any pleasure in saying 'I told you so'," he said, referring to his pre-season comments that 2006-07 would be a tough challenge. "In this game night doesn't always follow day and just because we did well last year doesn't mean we'll do well this. Being a realist, it will be an achievement if we're still in this league next year."

Goals: Baines (5) 1-0; Vidic (62) 1-1; Saha (66) 1-2; Solskjaer (90) 1-3.

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Boyce, Hall, De Zeeuw, Baines; Teale (Valencia, 69), Landzaat, Scharner, Kilbane (Todorov, 69) ; Heskey, Camara (McCulloch, 59). Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Jackson.

Manchester United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; Brown (Giggs, h-t), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; O'Shea, Carrick, Scholes; Solskjaer, Saha, Rooney. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Jones, Richardson, Smith.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent)

Booked: Manchester United Ferdinand, O'Shea.

Man of the match: Rooney.

Attendance: 20,631.