United bounce back with win over Wolves
Wayne Rooney scored his first Premier League goals since September as Manchester United put their Champions League agonies to one side by beating Wolves 4-1 at Old Trafford.
Rooney, whose three-match ban for Euro 2012 next summer was reduced to two on appeal on Thursday, scored twice in the four-goal romp, taking his tally for the season to 11.
Nani also bagged two as United closed to within a couple of points of leaders Manchester City, who visit Chelsea on Monday.
The victory – as impressive as it was – does not atone for the disappointment in Switzerland on Wednesday with United losing 2-1 to Basel to go out of Europe’s premier club competition.
But, with so many injuries to overcome as well, the sight of Rooney making a meaningful contribution to a handsome win at least allows Sir Alex Ferguson to move forward with confidence.
Even Ferguson knows there is no way to put a positive spin on early elimination from the Champions League.
Yet some of the criticism has hurt deeply judging by a comment in his programme notes.
"We will take a lot of stick from critics and even from people we thought were perhaps on our side," said Ferguson.
It was not made clear whether the Scot was referring specifically to former skipper Roy Keane, who was the first to make his observations known as a pundit for ITV and had not held back in his view of the younger players in Ferguson’s squad.
However, the reaction helped bring a sense of focus to United’s performance once Steven Fletcher had fired a good chance wide after just 20 seconds.
A Wolves goal at that point would have really caused the home fans to sweat.
As it was, with Nani leading the way, they swiftly took command.
The Portugal winger was one of the few to excel in Basel and maintained that form on Saturday.
He had already served notice of his intention to cause Wolves problems when he was allowed to drift his way across the penalty area, skipping past three defenders in the process.
Nani then cut a shot back beyond Wayne Hennessey’s right-hand that found the bottom corner.
The celebration was a mixture of relief and defiance.
What happened on Wednesday is going to take more than one goal, one performance and one win to put right but the process of putting together those shattered pieces had begun.
It was Nani’s first Premier League goal since September 24, a week after Rooney had last found the net in league combat.
That effort, against Chelsea, came at a time when United’s season was so full of promise.
It is a measure of the disappointments since that when Rooney collected Nani’s pass and found the same corner his team-mate’s shot had nestled in earlier, it broke a sequence of seven league games when United had scored just a single goal.
Yet, in keeping with the hosts’ recent difficulties, they handed Wolves a lifeline within 90 seconds of the restart when Fletcher peeled off onto Patrice Evra, then rose above the diminutive Frenchman to power home Matt Jarvis’ excellent far-post cross.
For a few minutes, United were struggling as Jarvis tormented Chris Smalling.
But when Phil Jones set Antonio Valencia away, the South American’s low cross was tucked home by Nani from close range.
Now the conviction for which United are so synonymous returned.
Hennessey bundled Jonny Evans’ header round the post and twice denied Danny Welbeck.
In between, Valencia, one of those to struggle for form this season, picked out Rooney with another right wing cross.
Though not in the greatest position, the bounce was kind and Rooney managed to get his body in the right position to send his shot flying into the Wolves goal.
Ferguson felt sufficiently emboldened to hand Ezekiel Fryers his Premier League debut, although it took some smart reactions from Rio Ferdinand, upon whom so much is now expected with Nemanja Vidic out for the season, to prevent United ending up in trouble after the England man’s clearing header had smacked Smalling in the face.
United should have wrapped things up six minutes from time but Roger Johnson was allowed to clear Jones’ cross as substitute Federico Macheda slid in.