Premier League Champions Manchester United began their title defence with a narrow win over newly promoted Birmingham City.
Wayne Rooney’s goal after 34 minutes was enough to crack a resolute display from Alex McLeish’s men who had, to that point, set out well tactically with a packed defence and midfield raising questions over United’s penetration.
Not that these were the only questions being asked of the Champions who are under general media scrutiny following the sale of the World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo – could the Red Devils cope without him?
The answer for this game was an unconvincing “yes”, as up until the goal, United had found very little joy creatively – with a 25 yard speculative drive from Rooney that was tipped over by loan keeper Joe Hart the closest a goal came until the opener.
Clever and quick interchange between Rooney and strike partner Dimitar Berbatov led to Nani, wide left, swinging in a dangerous cross. The ball was headed by Rooney against the post but fortunately for him and United it rebounded straight back into the path of the number 10 who converted for the 99th time for the club.
Birmingham almost hit back straight away, Franck Quedrue heading a corner towards the goal, only to be denied by a spectacular goalline clearance by Patrice Evra. Seconds before the break Evra was involved again, working brilliantly to provide a chance for Darren Fletcher, who screwed his shot wide with the goal gaping.
Nani had appeared to be in some discomfort over the shoulder injury picked up in last weeks Community Shield and was replaced at half time by Ryan Giggs – this was not the only concern for Sir Alex Ferguson, who started with arguably a 5th choice right back, and both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic out injured.
Those problems were compounded when Jonny Evans, himself playing despite carrying a knock, was unable to continue and was replaced by Wes Brown who was barely passed fit himself. The penetration issue was clearly on Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind as he planned to bring on Anderson to add some much needed energy into the centre of the park – however the injury to Evans meant that the Brazilian remained on the bench.
Browns ring rust was exploited immediately as Blues’ debut striker Benitez made a mockery of the defenders half hearted offside appeal, proceeded to round him anyway, and fired in a hard shot which was expertly tipped wide by Ben Foster. Foster had a solid game all round with a performance that probably answered his own doubts as much as those of his critics.
There were few real chances for the home side in the second half – an imaginative 30 yard half volley from Rooney, a Berbatov header cleared off the line (and a debatable penalty claim on the Bulgarian, too) – but in the dying seconds Berbatov’s replacement from the bench, Michael Owen, almost sealed his league debut at the Stretford End with a goal after being magnificently put through by Rooney’s chested through pass. However Owen fluffed his lines and probably let the occasion get to him, Hart saved comfortably.
Rooney’s invention, however, was just the icing on the cake. Of the many questions that were being asked, Rooney provided some answers. Firstly, he is up for the challenge. Secondly, he has the ability to fill the shoes of Ronaldo, and then some. The way the 23 year old ran the show and dominated the pitch was – whisper it – reminiscent of Cantona in his pomp.
There were shining lights in the injury crisis – Jonny Evans proved himself capable even while struggling and Fabio at right back had a stormer of a performance.
United will play better than this this season while Birmingham will probably play worse and win. Whether the penetration that was typical of Ronaldo of two years ago or the Giggs of yesteryear can be replaced from current members of this United squad remains to be seen – whether they still have the hunger and ability to get a win when not playing well and depleted in numbers is, as ever, not in question.
Ratings : Foster 7, Fabio 8, O’Shea 6, Evans 7 (Brown), Evra 7, Nani 7 (Giggs 7), Scholes 6, Fletcher 6, Valencia 6, *Rooney 8, Berbatov 6 (Owen).
Now view the goal and highlights : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbEPu_hIYes