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
Wayne Rooney returns to Manchester United’s squad for Wigan Athletic’s visit to Old Trafford but will start on the bench after more than a month out injured. The striker, who spent a week at Nike’s HQ in Oregon, has trained with the first team squad this week and could feature as a second half substitute against Roberto Martinez’ outfit.
The home crowd’s reaction to Rooney’s inclusion is less certain still, with the striker yet to formally apologise to fans for his behaviour in the lead up to signing a new contract last month.
Rooney has not played for United since an ineffective substitute appearance against West Bromwich Albion in October. Subsequently the player blackmailed United into offering the most lucrative contract in the club’s history, from which the player has earned more than £1 million without playing.
While Rooney has not begun full training, he has completed remedial and fitness work and could be included by Sir Alex Ferguson tomorrow before starting in a largely second-string side against Rangers next week.
“I don’t think he’ll start tomorrow,” Ferguson told the Key 103 radio.
“Maybe he will reach the bench. But he will certainly play on Wednesday against Rangers.
“He has been doing OK. He just needs to get back into the football training.
“The week in Oregon was intense. That in itself brings the fitness part, but the football part of training is another thing. With him being out with the ankle injury we needed to get him onto the intense training to get his fitness levels up.”
Ferguson may also be without Ryan Giggs, Chris Smalling and Rafael da Silva, with United potential Premier League leaders at the weekend’s close. Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand played an hour of England’s loss to France in midweek but has a sore hamstring and may not be risked. Smalling missed out on the international with a groin problem.
Long-term injured Owen Hargreaves, Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia definitely miss out but Paul Scholes returns after missing the draw with Villa through suspension.
In Rooney’s stead Ferguson is likely to retain Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández despite the pair’s disappointing showing against the Midlanders last weekend. Both players were replaced at Villa Park, with Berbatov having not scored in 10 matches.
Federico Macheda’s fine strike last weekend will only earn the Italian a place on the bench. The teenager also scored twice for Italy under-21s in midweek.
However, Bébé could miss out altogether having played 75 minutes of United’s second string fixture on Thursday night. The Portuguese scored two outstanding goals the reserves’ 3-1 victory to offer fans a glimpse of the talent that persuaded Ferguson to part with £8 million for his services.
Despite Rooney’s return many supporters remain angry over the player’s recent behaviour. Rooney’s assertion that United lacked the “ambition” to retain his services offended fellow players and the striker’s apparently willingness to join Manchester City still rankles with fans. That the 25-year-old striker has thus far refused to apologise has not gone unnoticed either.
However, Ferguson has attempted to cool tempers, laying the blame at agent Paul Stretford’s door.
“The boy rushed in,” the Scot said this week.
“The minute the response of the public and supporters and press had a say, he changed his mind immediately because he knew he made a mistake.
“He immediately apologised and agreed on a new contract in a couple of hours.
“We want to get Wayne to his best. When that happens, everything will be OK.”
Whether Rooney plays or not, Wigan is unlikely to threaten United’s unbeaten record this season despite the Reds’ inconsistent form. The Latics have never beaten United – home or away – with the Reds winning all 11 previous meetings between the two sides, including 10 Premier League matches and the 2006 League Cup final.
Meanwhile, Martinez will be without defender Gary Caldwell, who has thigh problem, while on-loan midfielder Tom Cleverley is ineligible to face his parent club.
Cleverley will return to Old Trafford in January having suffered a frustrating spell at Wigan. Injuries have disrupted the 21-year-old’s progress this season but Martinez praised the midfielder’s recent performance against Liverpool.
After United’s disappointing midfield displays this season, the Reds could use Cleverley’s creativity.
Wigan – 451 – Al Habsi; Figueroa, Stam, S Caldwell, Alcaraz; Diame, Thomas, N’Zogbia, Gomez, Moses; Rodallega. Subs from: Kirkland, Watson, Boselli, Figueroa, Di Santo, Moses, Gohouri, McArthur.
Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Amos, Rafael, Brown, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Smalling, Evans, Evra, Fabio, Scholes, Obertan, Bébé, Anderson, Gibson, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs, Park, Berbatov, Rooney, Hernández, Macheda.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistant referees: Peter Kirkup & Mike Mullarkey
Fourth official: Mike Jones
United – DWWWDD
Wigan – DWLLDW
Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley has completed a move to Wigan Athletic on a season-long loan deal. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson had previously said that the midfielder, 21, is too good to loan out. However, Cleverley will now spend the next year at the DW Stadium under Latics manager Roberto Martinez’ guidance.
“Tom is a very exciting young player and we are delighted he his coming to us,” said Martinez.
“He can play in a number of positions and will provide us with some good new options, and add great competition to the squad.
“We have been watching him for some time and feel he is the right sort of player to join our squad; young, hungry, desperate to play for the club in the Premier League and to grow with us.”
However, the move comes as something of a surprise following Ferguson’s previous declaration that the midfielder would stay at Old Trafford this season.
“He is an exceptional young player in terms of his ability to play a variety of positions,” Ferguson said in early August.
“He is such a talent, we must keep him. He showed at Watford that he’s a goalscorer from midfield and we need that. He has outstanding qualities.”
However, Cleverley did not make the squad for United’s three Premier League fixtures to date despite performing brightly on the club’s pre-season tour to Canada, USA and Mexico. United also failed to secure another creative midfielder in the transfer window, although Anderson – 13 goals, one for United, in 155 career games – is due to return in late September.
Cleverley will join Wigan’s battle against relegation this season in preference to a move to Bolton Wanderers. While Owen Coyle was keen to bring the England Under-21 international to the Reebok, Wigan’s ability to offer Cleverley football every week appears to have been the deciding factor.
The player scored 11 goals in 33 matches for Watford last season.
Happy Birthday Sir Alex Ferguson was the message as his Manchester United players humbled Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Rafael da Silva, Dimitar Berbatov and the inspirational Antonio Valencia were enough to bring United to within two points of Chelsea at the Premier League summit.
Wigan, so meek in defeat to United by a replica scoreline in August, barely offered a threat as United ripped apart Roberto Martinez’ relegation threatened side. Tottenham Hotspur scored nine past Martinez’ side in November and bar some good fortune United could have run up double figures at Old Trafford last night.
Former Latic Antonio Valencia was the tormentor-in-chief, offering power, pace and constant penetration from the right-wing. And it was the Ecuadorian who came closest to opening to scoring within minutes of the start only to shoot tamely at Chris Kirkland in the visitors’ goal.
Nemanja Vidic, joining Wes Brown, Rafael and Patrice Evra in Ferguson’s strongest back-four in weeks, then had an attempt blocked on the line before Berbatov has a good shout for a penalty turned down by referee Lee Mason.
Rooney, sublime again last night, then hit the post from an impossible angle as United completely overran the visitors in the opening minutes. That Martinez’ side barely put in a tackle hardly helped the Spaniard’s cause – a failing that will surely drag the Latics into a relegation scrap.
That the inevitable opening goal took nearly half an hour to come was the only surprise. Valencia, full of menace all night, worked an opening with Rafael for the Brazilian to feed Rooney at the near post. The Scouser need only touch the ball to score his fifteenth goal of the season.
Goals two and three came before the half-time break to end the match as a contest. In truth it was barely ever one to start with. Berbatov’s beautifully weighted pass from left-to-right found Valencia, who cut back a low pass for Carrick to sweep home. Then Rafael showed brilliant footwork to create an opening on the edge of the area, which the teenager finished with his left foot. The Brazilian’s joy marked only his second goal in a United shirt.
United, hungrier and more determined than in recent weeks, was in no mood to take a breather in the second period. Valencia was again instrumental, skinning Manuel Figueroa on the right flank before finding Berbatov in space inside the box. The Bulgarian, afforded plenty of time, toe-poked home United’s fourth.
By now United’s team was enjoying itself, and some lovely one-touch football from Berbatov, Park Ji-Sung and Rooney resulted in the Scouser crashing a shot against the underside of the bar.
But it was fitting that man-of-the-match Valencia should wrap up proceedings against his former club by latching onto Rooney’s slide-rule pass and chipping home to cap a five-star performance from the home side. It was Valencia’s sixth Premier League goal of the season.
“I think the players realised there were goals there to be scored tonight and they took their chance. That was good because, who knows, goal difference could be important at the end of the season.”
“The really important thing for us is that Antonio scored another goal. That was key for him. He’ll get a lot more.”
“The whole team played well. They all need to play their part, and at the moment they are certainly doing that. It was marvellous stuff tonight.
“Defeats against Aston Villa and Fulham gave us an uncomfortable Christmas, and five defeats in the first half of the season is already one more than we had in the whole of last season. That’s a concern, but the way the league is going it’s not fatal. I just hope that we haven’t damaged ourselves too much.
“There have been a few shock results this season that hopefully might mean the title is taken with fewer points than usual.”
Ferguson, who had confessed to not sleeping over Christmas following those defeats, will find New Year far more comfortable. Matches against Leeds United in the FA Cup and Manchester City in the Carling Cup are exciting for the fans but the Scot will use them to rotate heavily as the Premier League enters its closing months.
Sir Alex Ferguson will rotate his squad for the visit of Wigan Athletic tonight as Manchester United aims to end the year just two points adrift of Premier League leaders Chelsea. With club captain Gary Neville again fit, Ferguson will be without just Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van der Sar as United’s defensive injury crisis finally abates.
On the eve of Sir Alex’ birthday the Scot will deploy a rotated side for the 100th match in succession. Not since the closing stages of the 2007/8 season has the Scot picked an unchanged team. But ever wary of the load placed on his players – especially at Christmas – Ferguson is likely to bring Michael Owen, Anderson, Paul Scholes and Gabriel Obertan into tonight’s team.
But the United manager, 68 tomorrow, must do without Edwin van der Sar who has been given an extended leave of absence to visit his sick wife in Holland. In the Dutchman’s absence Ferguson will deploy Tomasz Kuszazck for the eight successive game, with Neville, want away Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown and Patrice Evra making up an experienced back-line.
One of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher could make way for Anderson or Paul Scholes in central midfield, while Frenchman Obertan is due a start with Nani out-of-favour and injured. Michael Owen may begin the match ahead of Dimitar Berbatov for the home fixture against a side United defeated 5-0 in August.
“It’s a tough league, you can see that. There’s nobody having a consistent run and it’s maybe one of those seasons,” Ferguson said.
“History tells you that two teams always break away at the end. That’s what normally happens, but it’s not looking like that at the moment.
“It’s always hard to win the league, and teams have improved in the Premier League this season, but it’s still a hard league no matter what season you do it. We’ve got the experience to do it, though, and the players to do it.”
Indeed, Ferguson is not expected to dip into the transfer market this winter, with the injury burden easing and Owen Hargreaves still to make his first appearance of the season. Although Ferguson would like to bring another striker to the club – David Villa, Edin Dzeko and Karim Benzema is each on a list of potential targets – it may well have to wait until the summer.
The Scot also insists that United is well placed to mount an assault on the Premier League title, with the club just one point worse off than at a similar stage last season.
“I think we’re better placed than most teams in that respect and they’ll know that. They will have to look at Manchester United, there’s no getting away from that,” Ferguson said.
“I know we have a good record against Wigan, but we have to respect the victories they have had against Aston Villa and Chelsea this season. They play football and that is the way Roberto Martinez wants them to play. He has a good philosophy, so it should be an entertaining match.
“But we’re coming to that time of the season when the challenge is there. We’ve got a league that is so tight now.
“Teams are taking points off each other that you don’t expect and it is tightening up the whole league. It means a consistent run from any team will give them a great chance.
“Obviously our experience of run-ins is good, we can handle that part, but the important thing is to win this game which will put us in the position I hoped we would get to – just a couple of points behind the leaders going into the New Year.”
The message was loud and clear: United is back and how. Victory against Wigan Athletic may be commonplace but it was the five second half goals that has truly ignited United’s season. The response to last weekend’s underwhelming win over Birmingham City and the midweek defeat at Turf Moor was emphatic. But if United could have scored ten at the newly renamed DW stadium then there will still be concerns that there was profligacy in front of goal in the first half and a midfield that feels lightweight.
But what a response to criticism that the team lacks creativity and penetration without Cristiano Ronaldo. This was a United side that managed just four strikes on target against Burnley Wednesday night; there were nine more at the DW on Saturday. United, in this vein of form is always going to score goals, albeit against a Wigan team that was more than generous in defence. Roberto Martinez has brought his ethos of attacking passing football from Swansea but in this company his team needed a little more grit.
It took United nearly an hour to get started though and the flurry of late goals gave the scoreline a flattering feel. Wayne Rooney’s free-header for the opener was symptomatic of Wigan’s defending in the second 45. Indeed, better finishing from United’s forwards would have led to a cricket score given the number of chances that the team created.
But Wigan’s bright midfield three of xxx, xxx and xxxx were never out of the game, and the home side could have had three itself.There must still be a concern that United’s midfield lacks quality of the highest level. Paul Scholes, who was very fortunate not to see red after raising his hands, joined the excellent Darren Fletcher in central midfield. While Scholes is increasingly showing his age, The Scottish Player is no longer the love that dare not speak his name with the United fans. On a day when Rooney once again excelled in a central role, it was Fletcher that took the man-of-the-match plaudits. But United’s midfield four was sometimes overrun by Wigan’s three, and despite the away side hogging the possession better teams than the Latics would have cause United significant problems in the middle of the park.
On the wings Nani and Antonio Valencia were dangerous, although the mindless booing of the former Wigan player was as predictable as it was petty. Valencia created the space and delivered the cross for United’s opening goal, while Nani curled in a fine last minute free kick. Cristiano who?
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson will have been pleased to see both Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov score too. Owen’s superbly taken strike, clipped past the ‘keeper with his left foot, was easily the hardest of the chances he has created in the start to his United career. Meanwhile, Berbatov was bright and hard-working once again. Criticism of his performances last season were unfair, and it is clear the Bulgarian has put in the work during pre-season this time around.
United now face fixtures against in-form Arsenal and then Tottenham Hotspur. They are the first big tests of the season, despite the defeat at Turf Moor. United can ill afford to waste chances again in what are likely to be two tight games.