Champions League

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Rooney remains Man United's engine

OX Soccer crew analyzes Manchester United's victory
OX Soccer crew analyzes Manchester United's victory
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It would seem that United were wise to clutch onto the want-away Wayne Rooney after all. Because for all his griping, for his enduring public claims that he’d rather graze on some greener grass, for his maddening streakiness, he continues to occupy the space between a mean and a mediocre Manchester United team.

On Tuesday, his assist and two goals – the first of which made him the first Brit to score 28 UEFA Champions League goals; the second just the fourth man to score 200 for United – helped the Red Devils dispatch Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 in their continental opener.

If the score suggested a comfortable win, however, David Moyes, the first manager to lead Manchester United in a European campaign not named Sir Alex Ferguson since 1985, nevertheless found out that winning in Europe is an altogether different beast.

Because for all his side’s dominance in this game, besting Leverkusen in every way at home within the comfy confines of Old Trafford, in front of a crowd that has witnessed so much European glory, a brief second-half wobble threatened to teach them a hard lesson before they were able to run away with the score late.

With Shinji Kagawa and Marouane Fellaini in the starting lineup for the first time this year, United deployed in a pleasing 4-2-3-1 formation. Fellaini slotted in beside Michael Carrick at the base of the midfield, with Antonio Valencia and Kagawa out wide. Rooney ran amok in his preferred free role below target man Robin van Persie.

In their most convincing performance of a fraught year so far, which has included a Premier League tie with Chelsea and a loss to Liverpool, United circulated the ball crisply against a savvy opponent, whose press was tight and pressure heavy.

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But United’s enduring reliance on Rooney, playing with a headband and gauze to protect a gnarly gash in his forehead, was apparent in his 22nd-minute interference in the stalemate. Patrice Evra may have been a tad offside as he swung in his cross and Valencia was certainly obstructing goalkeeper Bernd Leno, but Rooney nevertheless materialized in the 6-yard box to bounce his volley into the roof of the net and put his side ahead.

In the 54th minute, however, running brazenly counter to the swing of the game, Simon Rolfes received the ball from Son Heung-Min, who had been wicking and weaving through the box, and curled it beautifully out of David De Gea’s reach, who stood nailed to the ground, to equalize.

Yet not five minutes later, Valencia’s hard run down the right culminated in a cross lifted to van Persie, who reached back and, without looking, volleyed through the arms of a stunned Leno with his lesser right foot to restore order and make amends for a night on which he saw plenty of the ball but frittered away his chances.

Visibly deflated, Leverkusen then bungled a straightforward defensive play in the 70th minute, when a De Gea goal kick was somehow redirected into the path of Rooney, who was allowed to run at goal unmolested. He coolly slipped it into the net by the near post to put the game out of reach.

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Rooney stamped his night an all-out success in the 79th minute, threading a pinpoint through ball to Valencia on a quick breakaway for a 4-1 advantage. When Omer Toprak poked in a late consolation goal after Stegan Reinartz’s header clattered off the cross bar on a corner, it could hardly take the sheen off Moyes’ maiden European win – but it certainly may be important for the Germans down the road on goal difference.

United ought probably to have been up 5-1 by then. In the 52nd, Toprak had slipped while on the ball deep in his own half. But Rooney, after rounding Leno, had taken the acutely angled shot left-footed and missed, rather than feeding the wide-open van Persie.

Van Persie, meanwhile, had his own chance to record a fifth. On the brink of injury time, he’d met a sharp cross from the excellent Valencia at the second post but inexplicably let the ball skip off his heel and bounce well wide of the gaping goal not three yards before him for an unsightly miss.

Nevertheless, Moyes avoided having to learn the hard lessons of playing in Europe. And if he’s shrewd, he’ll concede that he owes that to the boy he first brought through to the first team at Everton, and the man he now depends on to stick around, willingly or not.

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