at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Wayne Rooney last night delivered a stunning reminder of the days when Manchester United could be relied upon to decorate the Premier League with the extravagance of their football.
Under the floodlights at Upton Park, Rooney scored a goal of stunning invention from some 57 yards. It was greeted with a gleeful leap from the bench by United manager David Moyes — and a massive grin from the watching David Beckham, who had thrust himself into the conscience of the nation with a goal of his own for United from the halfway line against Wimbledon in the faraway summer of 1996.
Rooney followed up his eighth-minute wonder goal, from barely five yards inside West Ham’s half, with a second that showed the speed of his reflexes as he reacted to a clearance from Mark Noble 12 minutes before half-time.
United can at least approach the derby match with Manchester City on Tuesday with renewed confidence after their second good performance in four days erased some of the pain of losing to Liverpool. Moyes could not have desired a greater encore to the midweek performance that, finally, brought United’s season to life when they overcame a two-goal deficit to beat Olympiacos and reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
He retained just five players from his starting line-up against the Greek club — David de Gea, Rafael, Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Rooney — but there was the same sense of purpose from the new men.
Juan Mata brought composure and vision to midfield. The Spaniard can select a probing pass beyond the capabilities of most. He looked the perfect foil to Rooney last night.
Moyes would also have taken pleasure from a more urgent performance from Marouane Fellaini, his only other significant signing to date, while Darren Fletcher seems to be in rude health again after illness. But Rooney hogged all the headlines. The man who will be burdened with carrying the expectations of the nation to the World Cup in Brazil showed watching England boss Roy Hodgson that he is still a master of the unexpected.
When Ashley Young won the ball deep in his own half and directed it upfield, Rooney fought for possession with West Ham defender George McCartney. Rooney’s strength was too much, but what happened next defied belief. He took another couple of strides, looking up as he did so. He calculated in that split-second that West Ham goalkeeper Adrian, stationed near the penalty spot, was vulnerable.
Without hesitation, Rooney unleashed a volley. Poor Adrian realised the danger a fraction too late. With the ball in the air, the Spaniard twisted and turned as he followed the flight while trying to back-pedal. It was like watching a marionette with a broken string, and Adrian was an Upton Park spectator like the rest of us as Rooney’s shot bounced close to the goalline and hit the roof of the net.
The strike was measured at 57 yards. It certainly travelled into the memories of all present as a moment to be treasured for posterity. Perhaps Rooney was the least surprised man, woman or child in the ground; he had meant to score and knew he had the skill to do so.
Cue camera to the best seats. And there was Beckham, remembered for a goal of similar audacity against Wimbledon during the salad days of his incredible career in August 1996. He sat there grinning with delight at witnessing a piece of footballing magic so close to his own heart.
West Ham’s best hope of recovering from the shock was through the aerial power of Carroll. With so many central defenders denied to Moyes, Carroll was a constant threat to Jones and Carrick, a former West Ham player asked to drop from midfield to centre half.
Indeed, West Ham were optimistically appealing for a penalty in the 33rd minute when Carroll and Fletcher collided. But instead of getting a spot-kick, West Ham were caught cold on the counter attack.
When Young’s cross was side-footed out from the edge of his own six-yard box by Noble, the ball fell conveniently into the path of Rooney, who buried United’s second goal.
They never looked in peril against a team they had not lost to in 10 previous meetings, winning nine.
West Ham’s third straight defeat keeps them in a battle for survival, six points off the drop zone. United became the seventh team to beat them in their own East End manor.
And so to Rooney’s reaction about that goal. ‘It’s just instinct,’ he said. ‘I turned and had a quick look; it’s one of those I’ve tried many times.’
Asked if it was better than Beckham’s, he joked: ‘Of course it was, yes. It’s up there with my best goals. You try them in training and it’s not often they come off, but when they do it’s great.’
West Ham (4-5-1): Adrian; Demel, Tomkins, Collins, McCartney; Diame (Jarvis 58min), Noble, Nolan (C Cole 72), Taylor (Nocerino 83), Downing; Carroll. Subs (not used): Jaaskelainen; Reid, Armero, J Cole. Booked: Collins, Taylor.
Manchester Utd (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Carrick, Jones, Buttner; Young, Fletcher, Fellaini, Kagawa; Mata (Welbeck 78); Rooney (Hernandez 77). Subs (not used): Lindegaard; Evra, Nani, Cleverley, Januzaj. Booked: Rafael.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire). – Mail On Sunday