Bright moment saves Man United’s dark night


Wayne Rooney in action for Manchester United. (Jon Super/AP)

It was far from vintage Manchester United and it might open up Louis Van Gaal to more scrutiny but it wasn’t the disaster it looked to be for the majority of the proceedings.

For a while the only positive buzz around the United manager in the buildup to Tuesday night’s UEFA Champions League game against CSKA Moscow was a spoof of the Dutchman in Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video:

That’s because Van Gaal dropped three of his top performers from his starting 11 in Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, and Ander Herrera, but he gave yet another start to the under-performing Wayne Rooney.

Despite dictating the play and taking the game to CSKA for long stretches United were far from clinical in front of goal. The Red Devils’ 1-0 victory at Old Trafford put them top of their Champions League group and more importantly it ended their goalless drought.

Here are my three thoughts on the match…

Despite previous claims that Wayne Rooney is a front line striker and that he wasn’t sure about Anthony Martial’s best position, Van Gaal reverted from his recent form and played Martial through the middle with Rooney in behind. What that meant was one of United’s best players of late in Herrera was dropped from the starting 11. The move seemed to work as United were much more lively in front of goal than they were against Crystal Palace on the weekend. With Rooney leading the line Manchester had only one shot on target against Crystal Palace.

The fans have grown impatient. Before kickoff the chant of “attack, attack, attack” was heard loud and clear. The same chant was belted out when the players went to the dressing room at half time. The chant, more cynical then encouraging, was not so much for the United players as it was their pragmatic manager.

That’s because the fans new that the small tactical changes were just papering over the cracks of a struggling offence. United were close to setting a club record in the worst way. Never before has the proud club drawn 0-0 four straight games. The team was coming up against six hours without scoring which would have been its longest drought since 1992.

Boos rained down harder than the precipitation when Marouane Fellani came on for Martial in the 66th minute instead of Rooney. At that point Rooney went back up front. Another substitution 10 minutes later brought Memphis Depay on, switching Jesse Lingard from the left flank to the right. Still Rooney was kept on the field. It was a controversial and head scratching decision at the time but it eventually paid off.

After Van Gaal considered him surplus requirements Javier Hernandez has scored six goals in his last four matches for Bayer Leverkusen. That fact has made it even more disappointing that Rooney had just six goals in 16 appearances for United this season. His seventh lifted the weight off his shoulders and lifted his club to a vital victory, though.

Instead of continuing the goalless drought United made history in another way by notching their first ever-home victory against a Russian opponent. In the 79th minute it was the two attacking players Van Gaal decided to leave on in Lingard and Rooney who combined to break the deadlock.

After Michael Carrick delivered a diagonal pass, Lingard volleyed back towards goal with a perfectly weighted ball with enough pace that Rooney just had to head home from close range past a helpless Igor Akinfeev.

There were other big moments. Seydou Doumbia came on in the second half and was through on David De Gea. The United ‘keeper stayed big and made a one-handed save before Chris Smalling scrambled to clear Doumbia’s rebound effort off the line.

Rooney’s best scoring opportunity was put on a plate for him by Juan Mata but he the United captain get the ball out of his feet. Yet it was the finish with his head that will be remembered and makes Van Gaal look like a genius for sticking with his embattled star.

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