United’s frontline to the fore

Wayne Rooney scored one goal and set up two others in the kind of performance that could trouble the most accomplished defenders. Daniel Taylor reports.

Manchester United have reached such an exhilarating run of form that the biggest and most blase crowd in English football could even slip out of habit and celebrate a home win for Chelsea when the results flashed up on Old Trafford’s scoreboard.

The cackling was predominantly schadenfreude at Manchester City’s expense, but it also confirmed that, post-Jose Mourinho, the supporters of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team have come to regard the deposed champions with a mixture of disdain and curiosity rather than the fear of old.

The focus at Old Trafford has shifted towards Arsenal rather than Chelsea, with Ferguson talking about a return to “old times” in the contest for supremacy at the top of the Premier League. Arsenal, he believes, are the most credible challengers to his winning a 10th championship in 15 years, but one certainty is that he will not view the trip to the Emirates Stadium with any trepidation. Ferguson’s team, who welcomed back Owen Hargreaves for only his fourth game since joining the club in the summer, seem immune to insecurity and it is beginning to feel like a trick of the mind that their fans were getting agitated earlier this season about a lack of entertainment.

With five goals from the opening seven games, the complaints were not entirely without justification, but the more thoughtful supporters will have appreciated that a frontline containing Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez could not be contained for long. United have scored four goals in each of their last four games and, to put it into perspective, it is the first time they have done that since 1907 when the manager was Ernest Mangnall and they played their home games at Bank Street in Clayton.

The oddity was that Ronaldo, though frequently eluding his opponents and showing his usual desire to take possession of the ball, played only a peripheral role. The Portuguese forward, usually Middlesbrough’s bete noire, did not play any part in the goals but it scarcely mattered because, collectively, United were at their very best and it was one of those days when Rooney’s performance could have been set to music — from a Middlesbrough perspective, possibly the theme from Jaws.

The most impressive aspect was that the performance of Gareth Southgate’s team was far from the worst put up by an away side at Old Trafford over the last year or so and, at times, the visitors put together some attractive football of their own. Special mention should be made of Lee Cattermole, who chased so hard he was grimacing with cramp in the last few minutes, but only the most accomplished team can harbour realistic aspirations of going to Old Trafford in a 4-4-2 formation and it not becoming an ordeal.

Southgate’s boldness will be applauded by purists and it was difficult not to sympathise when he explained afterwards that he wanted to stick to his beliefs — namely, open and attacking football — rather than taking the popular approach of visiting managers to Old Trafford by packing midfield and deploying a lone forward. The reality, however, was that his system gave Middlesbrough’s opponents the time and space to work their elaborate, triangular passing moves. Adventurousness can only be applauded when it is accompanied by common sense and, in this case, Southgate was badly misguided.

Rooney, in particular, made sure that was the case and, as he approaches the point of maximum expression, how preposterous it may feel over the coming months that Euro 2008 is likely to go ahead without the assassin-faced baby as one of the star turns.

His performance combined brute force, beautiful subtlety and, above all, a desire to make things happen, the highlights being an inch-perfect 60-yard pass to Ronaldo, the backheel (with his left foot) that set up Tevez to make it 3-1, and the bull run from inside his own half before the Argentinian finished the scoring with a shot that deflected off Andrew Taylor and looped into the net.

Rooney also scored his eighth goal in his last seven games, lashing his shot beyond Mark Schwarzer after a ghastly mistake by Stewart Downing, and it speaks volumes for the England forward that his performance should be the main talking point when Nani, with a swivel of the hips and a rasping 30-yard drive, had bewitched Old Trafford with the stunning quality of his opening goal. Nani has a tendency to disappear for long spells but he also has a wonderful knack for finding the top corner. After a winding run beyond Gary O’Neil, Luke Young and Cattermole, his goal will rank among the finest witnessed inside this stadium in the Ferguson era.

Middlesbrough equalised when Jeremie Aliadiere headed Tuncay Sanli’s cross in off the post, and they would have taken the lead had Downing not placed an unchallenged header narrowly wide midway through the first half. Trying to outpass United, however, is a hazardous business.

Ferguson’s team will head to Arsenal on the back of eight successive league wins and, on that kind of form, they can afford to be happy about Chelsea putting six past Manchester City.

Wayne Rooney scored one and set up two others in the kind of performance that could trouble the most accomplished defenders.

THE RESULTS October 28:

October 27: Birmingham 3 (Kapo pen-26 & 81, Ridgewell 67) bt Wigan 2 (Bent 23 & 59). Half-time: 1-1; Chelsea 6 (Essien 16, Drogba 31 & 56, Kalou 75, Shevchenko 90) bt Manchester City 0. Half-time: 2-0; Manchester United 4 (Nani 3, Rooney 33, Tevez 55 & 85) bt Middlesbrough 1 (Aliadiere 6). Half-time: 2-1; Portsmouth 0 drew with West Ham 0; Reading 2 (Kitson 53, Long 84) bt Newcastle 1 (Duberry o.g. 76). Half-time: 0-0; Sunderland 1 (Jones 86) drew with Fulham 1 (Davies 32). Half-time: 0-1.

October 22: Newcastle 3 (Martins 45, Cacapa 51, Milner 73) bt Tottenham 1 (Keane 57). Half-time: 1-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007