x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

United rely on their 'Pele'

He was christened "the White Pele" in a terrace chant not long after his arrival at Old Trafford. Now the demands on Wayne Rooney are only slightly easier.

MANCHESTER // He was christened "the White Pele" in a terrace chant not long after his arrival at Old Trafford. Now the demands on Wayne Rooney are only slightly easier. Rather than emulating the greatest player of all time, he has to be the new Cristiano Ronaldo, less prone to preening and posturing, without the fake tan and the childish spats, but with the goals. And this represented an important start. Rooney provided inspiration as well as his trademark industry to defeat Birmingham City. It was precisely the sort of fixture Ronaldo specialised in deciding and it was significant Rooney determined this. Following his injury time equaliser in the Community Shield last week, it suggested that 25 goals - Rooney's own target for the campaign - is eminently achievable.

It has long been evident that Rooney has a pivotal part to play in proceedings for United this season, but this only served to reinforce that impression. Restored to the traditional No 10's position after Ronaldo's exit, this suggested he can combine the roles of creator and finisher. His unselfishness has meant he has often preferred to be the provider. Now, however, he is required to be United's executioner in chief. It was a task he performed with relish.

Like his new teammate Michael Owen, who appeared for the final 16 minutes, Rooney has improved in the air as his career has progressed. Albeit indirectly, his aerial ability brought the breakthrough. When Nani crossed from the left flank, Rooney rose above Franck Queudrue to head against the foot of a post. The rebound fell invitingly for Rooney, affording him a tap-in. He was at his most audacious immediately after half time, swivelling to hit a half-volley from 30 metres. Joe Hart reacted well to save. A second header, from the substitute Ryan Giggs's cross, narrowly missed the far post.

A goal could have been accompanied by an assist. One deft header sent Dimitar Berbatov clear and, after Hart blocked, Rooney retrieved possession to find Nani, who also found the Birmingham goalkeeper in obdurate mode. Within a couple of minutes, Hart was required to excel again, the on-loan Manchester City player denying United by tipping Rooney's curling shot over the bar. In added time, he sent Owen scurrying clear, but Hart denied the newcomer a maiden United goal.

The margin of victory should have been greater. The otherwise impressive Darren Fletcher lost his composure in front of goal, somehow diverting his shot wide when Patrice Evra had provided an inviting cross. Berbatov then had a goalbound header stopped by Lee Carsley, who had retreated on to his own line. The Bulgarian was supplied by Fabio da Silva, the novice right-back in a United defence shorn of four injured players while a fifth, Wes Brown, was only fit enough for a cameo appearance.

Normally deployed on the left, the Brazilian displayed the same adventurous instincts as his injured brother, Rafael, but was troubled by the raids of James McFadden. Indeed, a makeshift United defence required a moment of agile defending from the one automatic choice to preserve their clean sheet. Patrice Evra headed adeptly off his own line when Queudrue met Sebastian Larsson's corner with a forceful header. As so many matches at Old Trafford are, it was a reunion. Ferguson boasts an outstanding record against his former charges - 44 wins from 57 Premier League meetings - and many of those victories have had a routine feel. It is to Alex McLeish's credit that this did not.

Birmingham began by providing some dogged resistance when the debutant defenders Gregory Vignal and Roger Johnson acquitted themselves commendably. Admirably well organised, Birmingham's attacks were isolated, but contained a suggestion they could equalise. First Cameron Jerome, the lone striker, and then Keith Fahey drilled narrowly wide. Then, following the introduction of Christian Benitez, Birmingham's record signing almost made his a bow to savour. Cutting in from the left flank, he drew a terrific save from Ben Foster. The Ecuador international may not be in the only Benitez to trouble United this season, but his was a threat the champions survived. After a largely uninspired performance, Rooney excepted, the worry is that his namesake Rafael may loom larger over United's season.

rjolly@thenational.ae