Wayne Rooney converts late penalty to rescue Man United

Manchester United squeaked by third-tier Sheffield United 1-0 thanks to a late Wayne Rooney goal from the spot. Dean Hammond conceded a penalty late in stoppage time to allow the Red Devils a very fortunate – and not entirely deserved – win Saturday evening.

The Blades appeared to be taking the match to a replay at Bramall Lane after a desperately poor scoreless 90 minutes of football. But Hammond slid in needlessly on Memphis Depay in the box, catching him on the shin with his studs. Despite the fact that Depay made a meal of it, ref Jonathan Moss had no other option but to award the penalty.

The result will be a relief to the embattled Louis van Gaal – but if anyone stayed awake during this formless, depressing slog, they will recognize just how poor Manchester United really were today. This was perhaps their worst performance of the season, one that carried little threat and displayed less intelligence and invention. The Blades will feel hard done by, especially considering they sit a full two divisions below the Manchester giants.

Against a disciplined Blades side that largely managed to keep the play in front of them, United looked spectacularly impotent even when presented gifts. Of their two shots in the first half – and they had but the two – neither were on target.

HEAR US OUT

For much of the opening period, the Red Devils had the ball but did little with it, preferring to lump the ball downfield to no one than building patiently. It was the Blades’ Connor Sammon who put the cat amongst the pigeons first, forcing David De Gea into a sharp save 18 minutes in after settling a long outlet pass and then uncorking a shot that was going in under the bar.

At the other end, Rooney continued to be on the periphery. Looking badly short of confidence, he could have broken the game open in the 20th minute when he rounded keeper George Long off service from Matteo Darmian, only to be marshaled out of play by the Sheffield United defense.

Long would stop Rooney 10 minutes later with a brave dive to the striker’s laces, but you rarely got the sense the one-time hero of English football was actually going to get off the mark. Part of the reason for that was that United seemed to have few ideas other than crossing the ball in. Daley Blind found Bastian Schweinsteiger with a long diagonal in the 36th that might have been headed on frame; instead the German misplayed it off his thigh and the chance evaporated.

Boos greeted the United players as they trudged off the pitch ahead of the restart, and it was hard not to understand why: this United side play with a numbing sterility.

The second half was a carbon copy of the first, with David Edgar marshaling the Blades’ back four well, and allowing United to come at them only to break on the bow. Juan Mata was allowed all kinds of time and space to little effect; he would be yanked on the hour after some comical passages that saw Marouane Fellaini actually try to spring him up top in a kind of bizzaro-world version of target-man play.

Mata was hooked for Depay on the hour, and the underwhelming Dutchman at least had an effort on goal, a shot in the 65th that fizzed wide and left of the frame. But the improvement was marginal at best and United started to be jeered anew by their own fans, who greeted every wayward pass or ball out of bounds with ironic cheers.

Anthony Martial had to win it with five to play when the ball fell to him, unmarked, at the spot. But his hack was bravely deflected away by John Brayford, and you got the sense then the jig was up. If not for the penalty, it would have been.

At the whistle, United were taking potshots from range while their fans turned their backs and filed out into the rain. Tellingly, Old Trafford’s faithful preferred to move out early into a downpour than stay inside and watch this mess. Who can blame them?