Wayne Rooney scored four times to send Manchester United to the top of the Premier League and dismiss the challenge of Hull City on a day when supporters united to declare their dissatisfaction over the club owners and an on-the-pitch outcast gave a telling reminder of his frightening potential.
Writing yet another chapter of this curious season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team selection, in resting Ryan Giggs and Anderson and leaving Antonio Valencia on the bench, seemed to be with the Carling Cup semi final second leg with Manchester City in mind. This meant that Nani was given another chance at redemption; and Michael Owen got a start alongside Wayne Rooney after their encouraging run out together late on at Eastlands. At the back, Rio Ferdinand returned after 3 months out to skipper the side.
With all due respect to Hull, United were strong favourites and played upto that billing with distinct domination in the first half. After some early sighters Paul Scholes brought the Old Trafford crowd to its feet with a stunning 30 yard drive in the 8th minute. Tigers keeper Boaz Myhill was imperious in their previous game at Spurs and he dealt with the ginger prices strike admirably where so many others in the past have not – however, he was then helpless to stop Rooney’s shot on the rebound.
Such an early goal threatened an onslaught; while chances came, the goals didn’t, and 10 minutes after the goal, having withstood territorial pressure, the visitors broke through Nick Barmby. The veteran created good space for himself but the angle was against him, making his effort comfortable for van der Sar. From then on though, the Champions dominated the rest of the half, coming close through Owen and then a Rooney free kick that went inches wide.
As could have been predicted, Rooney was at the heart of everything, but he found himself in familiar hot water 5 minutes before the break. After being cynically brought down and not being awarded the free kick, Rooney chased around, and when he next got the ball and was tackled fairly, he chased again, this time barging over Hunt. Referee Steve Bennett has needed no excuse to send off United players in the past but only gave a yellow.
Owen was certainly attempting to stake a claim for a first team place and almost got on the scoresheet twice in a matter of minutes. After exchanging passes with Park, Rooney and Nani, Owen found space but his shot was lacking in power or purpose. A header from Fletcher’s cross soon after was better but still comfortable.
The game was paused at the start of the second half as a coming together between Fagan and Evans lead to the referee’s assistant being sent flying, but thankfully recovered with no lasting damage. United continued to dominate and pepper regular shots towards Myhill’s goal but until Ferguson decided to make changes the major talking point was the constant chanting of “Love United, Hate Glazer” – on the pitch, Paul Scholes had been masterful – he was replaced by Darron Gibson having not wasted a pass, his last contribution being a header that went just over – it was the Champions’ twentieth effort on goal.
Despite their superiority a 1-0 scoreline is always precarious; United were reminded of this when Ghilas turned cutely and shot just wide. Nonetheless, it always seemed that a second goal would open the floodgates and so it proved.
Nani is a player who has frustrated most United supporters with his inconsistency and was seemingly on his way out of Old Trafford after his comments about selection policy in October, while he has always had to suffer the burden of constantly being compared to the best player in the world by virtue of nothing other than his position and passport. That frustration exists however because of performances like this one – he provided chance after chance and did nothing to diffuse the Ronaldo comparisons when he hit a stunning free kick from fully 35 yards – again, Myhill’s reaction was good, tipping the ball onto the crossbar, but the melee that resulted from the rebound saw Nani find Gibson when there must have been temptation to rocket another from long range. Gibson in turn fed Rooney who proceeded to smash the ball home and seal the result with eight minutes to go.
Hull complained that Dawson was down with a head injury after colliding with Myhill as the ball rebounded from the free kick; they might have had more of a point had they not had the chance to put the ball out themselves but instead chose to try and clear.
Yet more brilliance from Nani created Rooney’s hat-trick goal 4 minutes later, a fabulous cross from the right side was expertly guided in with the English striker’s head. And the rout was completed in injury time when sub Dimitar Berbatov showed one of his own exquisite touches, controlling the ball beautifully before flicking through to Rooney. Rooney’s first touch was key; the defenders could not react quick enough and the forward struck to register his 20th goal of the season and complete a 10 minute treble in front of the Stretford End.
United topped the table to considerably less fanfare than Arsenal in midweek and it has to be conceded that the others in the title race have games in hand, however the Champions look like they are hitting real form in the league right at the time they are famed for doing so.
Ratings : van der Sar 6, Rafael 6, Ferdinand 7, Evans 7, Evra 7 (Fabio), Nani 9, Fletcher 7, Scholes 8 (Gibson), Park 6, *Rooney 10, Owen 6 (Berbatov)