MANCHESTER // Were it a drama, it would be criticised for its predictability. In a football match, the sheer regularity of it is remarkable. Because while the identities of the defeated change, the same man assumes the starring role time and time again. Wayne Rooney scores, Manchester United win: for them, there is almost a guarantee of a happy ending after 90 minutes. Over the course of a season, their chances of a satisfactory conclusion are increasing, too: Rooney's latest decisive display included a brace and enabled United to regain the leadership of the Premier League from Chelsea. Fulham, like Milan, Aston Villa and Arsenal before them, can testify he is in a rich vein of form.
Not that the element of deja vu was confined to Rooney's presence on the scoresheet. Even the timing of his first goal was familiar. Indeed, it was the same combination who prospered at the same stage against AC Milan on Wednesday night. Then Nani supplied Rooney for a goal in the opening minute of the second half. Yesterday, the action replay was appreciated by United. The Englishman fed the ball wide to the winger, who comple-ted the one-two. Rooney guided his shot beyond Mark Schwarzer. He was similarly calm when, with six minutes remaining, Dimitar Berbatov strolled around Chris Baird to supply a second for his strike partner. "The making of the second goal was just superb football," said Sir Alex Ferguson.
It was his 32nd goal of the campaign and he is nearing Ronaldo's mark of 42 for the club two seasons ago. "I said a while ago it's impossible for a player to get 42 in the present day but he's on 32, so what can I say?" said his manager. "It's a challenge for him. He is capable of scoring in the next eight league games and possibly five European games so he's got 13 games possibly; you never know."
While Rooney is in uncharted territory, United, gazing down on their rivals from their perch at the summit of the division, are in all too familiar terrain. "I can't say anything other than the best team won the game," said the Fulham manager, Roy Hodgson. Sandwiching meetings with AC Milan and Liverpool, it was his side's lot to be overshadowed at Old Trafford. But the routine victories have a value and United know how to achieve them. They played the assurance of a side who never doubted the eventual result. A spate of first-half chances were spurned, but United merely ensured the first of the second period was converted.
Rooney's excellence is taken for granted, but Berbatov was the common denominator in their initial forays forward. He instigated the move that culminated in Stephen Kelly denying Rooney a goal with a superb tackle. Later, he swivelled to volley Antonio Valencia's corner just wide. Then Nani crossed and Berbatov headed just over the Fulham bar. The deadlock broken, United resumed their offensive. Schwarzer thwarted Rooney, Rio Ferdinand hooked Valencia's corner on to the roof of the net and Berbatov glanced a header past the far post. Finally Darren Fletcher powered into the penalty area, only for Schwarzer to tip his shot over before Rooney defeated the goalkeeper again and then Berbatov put the gloss on the scoreline by plunging forward to head in Ji-Sung Park's cross. "He had four or five attempts on goal and he's got one and that's important," added Ferguson.
Fulham had visited Juventus on Thursday; a momentous week concluded with a second defeat in four days. Fatigue took its toll in the closing stages. Before then, isolated attacks hinted at their ability. Long-range efforts from Clint Dempsey and Bobby Zamora were struck with venom and ambition respectively, while Nemanja Vidic produced a well-judged block to stop a shot from the striker. Nevertheless, a third consecutive clean sheet since the Serb was reunited with Ferdinand in defence was achieved with comparatively few alarms. "I keep praying I can keep that back four together," added Ferguson. He must hope, too, for Rooney to continue to star in a series of sequels.