Wayne Rooney returned for Manchester United as the Reds cruised to victory over nine-man Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford. The routine win, courtesy of headed goals by Patrice Evra and Javier Hernández, brings United level on points with leaders Chelsea as the Londoners slumped to a second Premier League defeat in a row.
Rooney came on with 30 minutes to go, to a mixed reception, with United now second only on goal difference.
It was a routine win for United over Wigan, with two of Roberto Martinez’ men sent off, but another limited performance from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. But the victory sends United to within touching distance of the Premier League lead – all the more remarkable that the Scot’s outfit is yet to perform anywhere near previous standards so far this season.
Evra headed home Park Ji-Sung’s cross just before half-time, capitalising on Ali Al Habsi’s mistake, before Hernandez wrapped up the win, heading home from Rafael da Silva’s centre.
Wigan had Antolin Alcaraz sent off for two bookable offences before Hugo Rodallega was red carded for a dangerous tackle on United’s Brazilian full-back.
That both Chelsea and Arsenal slumped to defeat is a huge boon to United, with the Reds able to take the Premier League lead by next weekend. With United barely making it out of second gear this season, rivals’ inconsistencies have kept Ferguson’s team in the hunt.
“It has been a good day for us, no question of that,” said Ferguson.
“If you had said at the start of the day would you take being joint top of the league I would have said ‘yes’.
“We know that come the second half of the season we will definitely get better and now we are joint top with Chelsea.”
Ferguson left Dimitar Berbatov out of the squad altogether, claiming the omission was on tactical grounds. That the Bulgarian had failed to score in the last 10 matches hardly made it a difficult decision for the United manager, although the £30 million striker failed to make even the bench.
With Rooney on the bench, United began with Gabriel Obertan and Federico Macheda leading the line. The pair’s introduction at Villa Park last week swung the match United’s way and a start at Old Trafford yesterday was reward indeed.
If Ferguson, mindful of Wigan’s atrocious record against United felt comfortable with none of his leading strikers in the side, then the visitors almost took advantage in the opening 45.
Indeed, the Latics’ arguably had the best of the opening chances as first Jordi Gomez fired over the bar, then Ronnie Stam struck wide following some hesitant United defending.
French winger Charles N’Zogbia beat three United defenders before Edwin Van der Sar saved at the former Newcastle player’s feet. Then referee Martin Atkinson turn down Wigan’s appeal for a penalty, as captain Nemanja Vidic appeared to drag N’Zogbia over in the box.
Martinez’ had much to admire in the resilient performance of his team though, despite not taking advantage of early chances. The Latics both frustrated United and worked well on the break during the opening period.
United, by contrast, retained possession well but often lacked a cutting edge in the final third. Not for the first time the Reds’ midfield often failed to work, with Nani the sole creative outlet.
Despite this United took the lead on the stroke of half-time as Evra scored his first goal for more than three years, heading home Park’s cross.
Rooney came on to both jeers and boos on the hour, although the reception was perhaps better than predicted after the striker effectively blackmailed the club into a new contract last month. That Rooney is yet to make the promised apology to supporters is not forgotten.
In any case, the game ended as any kind of contest with Wigan reduced to 10 men shortly after Rooney’s entry, with Alcaraz sent off for a second yellow card after fouling Darren Fletcher. Ten became 9 as Rodallega saw red for a wild tackle on Rafael and substitute Hernández completed the victory, heading home his fourth Premier League goal of the season.
Rooney’s return made the headlines though, although in truth the 25-year-old striker’s return was largely uneventful. He went close with a header from Rafael’s cross, which was tipped over the bar by Al Habsi, and fired straight at the ‘keeper from six yards but looked far from his best. Rooney remains without a goal in open play this season.
“That reception was good and it will settle him down,” said Ferguson.
“That has taken a lot of pressure off the boy.
“It was a quiet comeback, he got involved in a few of the bits of interplay but in the main he just needed that 25 minutes or so.
“He will play a full 90 minutes against Rangers on Wednesday and that will help with his fitness.”
Not for the first time this season United emerged with the points, despite a largely disappointing performance, in front of an under-capacity Old Trafford.
Despite now drawing level with Chelsea, Ferguson’s side will surely have to play better than this in the second half of the season if United is to take the Premier League in May.
Love him or loathe him, Rooney is key to that task.
United – 4411 – Van der Sar; Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Rafael Da Silva; Park Ji-Sung (Scholes 56), Carrick (Hernandez 64), Fletcher, Nani; Obertan; Macheda (Rooney 56).
Wigan – 451 – Al Habsi; Gohouri, Alcaraz, S Caldwell, Stam (McArthur 80), Figueroa; Thomas, N’Zogbia (Di Santo 80), Gomez (Moses 58), Diame; Rodallega.
Attendance – 74,181
Man of the Match – Evra
Possession: United 65% – 35% Wigan
Attempts: 17 – 10
On target: 12 – 4
Corners: 11 – 1
Fouls: 11 – 15