This could be the year of living dangerously for Manchester United. The champions began their pursuit of an unprecedented fourth consecutive title comfortably enough, but events here showed how reliant they are on one player, Wayne Rooney
, whose 99th goal for the club in all competitions led to three good points and one big debate.
United's heart and soul is also their Achilles' heel; if injury befalls Rooney, they will need to look elsewhere for inspiration. Obvious match-winners do not yet abound. Sir Alex Ferguson had little choice but to sell Cristiano Ronaldo, who was so smitten with Real Madrid, and now needs others to rise to the occasion. Rooney, thrillingly, has accepted the challenge. He has not only picked up the gauntlet, he is waving it in opponents' faces.
Others who wear United's unsightly new red shirt, a top surely designed with the rugby league market in mind, must follow Rooney's defiant example. Dimitar Berbatov displayed some elegant touches but again lacked urgency. Antonio Valencia appeared inhibited, preferring to play it simple rather than gambling occasionally and taking on a defender. With time, Valencia should give United a sharper attacking edge. His pace is vital in a front six not blessed with lightning speed.
Michael Owen darted off the bench, was presented with one glorious chance by Rooney, the type of one-on-one he routinely despatched in his Liverpool and England pomp, but a slight hesitancy cost him. Instead of racing around Joe Hart, Owen shot early and the keeper saved well.
Given the number of absent friends, the disjointed nature of some of United's football was understandable. Of the XI who started the Champions League final in Rome, only three lined up here, Rooney, Patrice Evra and John O'Shea. All of them excelled, particularly Rooney.
United often start the season slowly, so Ferguson will not be unduly worried, and his good humour yesterday was understandable given the potency, creativity and industry of his No 10. The full range of Rooney's technique was on glorious parade: a chested pass here, a flick with the outside of the boot there, a shot from range, a header. The works.
Rooney continues to mature into an accomplished, all-round footballer, one of the finest forwards in England's history, and the reason for hope during this World Cup season. Whether pushed right up or scheming in the hole, Rooney was a constant threat to Alex McLeish's visitors.
'"He's a huge talent,'' the Birmingham manager said. "We've seen it down the years when a natural footballer comes along, like Zinedine Zidane, and Rooney is a natural footballer. He drops into the pocket. I told my players that if he drops off, and faces up, to watch out because he has a vicious shot.''
Rooney's movement was as relentless as it was intelligent. Playing with his head up, Rooney rarely wasted a ball. Clearly told to be more selfish in front of goal, clearly enjoying his central station, Rooney gave early evidence of his threat. Turning suddenly away from a blue-shirted ambush, he let fly from range, his shot tipped over by Hart.
Birmingham's keeper was derided by United fans for his Eastlands connections, the Stretford End breaking into chants of "England's No 10'', but Hart grew in stature as the match lengthened. He had to be on his toes with Rooney about. Hart stood little chance when Rooney came calling in the 34th minute.
Reflecting his work ethic and creativity, Rooney played a part in the build-up, nodding the ball to Berbatov, who instantly headed it left to Nani. The Portuguese winger's deliveries had been erratic, particularly at corners. This time, Nani weighted his ball in perfectly, whipping the cross in early as Birmingham tried to man the barricades as those strange red shirts flooded into the box.
As Nani released the ball, Rooney was powering towards the penalty spot, catching defender Franck Queudrue out, and he rose high to direct a header past Hart. When the ball cannoned off the post, Rooney reacted quickest, driving United ahead. "We knew we were playing against some world-class players,'' added McLeish. Evra certainly deserves such an appellation, the French fullback constantly raiding forward, even creating a fabulous chance that midfielder Darren Fletcher somehow missed. This really will be the year of living dangerously if United pass up golden opportunities like that.
As Ferguson observed afterwards, United certainly like to keep their supporters on the edge of their seats, racked with nerves. Fletcher's profligacy was almost costly. Birmingham's threat had only flickered in the first half, hardly a surprise with Cameron Jerome, the tip of a 4-1-4-1 formation, so isolated and so well controlled by O'Shea.
Moments of hope did materialise. Barry Ferguson sat in midfield, playing neat passes around. James McFadden was denied by the excellent Ben Foster. When the England keeper was beaten, Evra cleared a Queudrue header off the line. In the second half, Birmingham showed more ambition, particularly when the chunky Ecuadorean Christian Benítez, nicknamed Chucho, charged from the bench like a muscular prizefighter on a mission.
Benítez kept running at the champions, turning Wes Brown and firing goalwards. Just as the "Benítez upsets Ferguson'' headlines were about to be written, Foster flung himself to his left, stretching out a hand and pushing the danger away. Relief, gratitude and admiration swept through United minds.
Rooney sought to ease the nerves, leaping to meet Ryan Giggs's cross and steering a header just wide before making that late chance for Owen. The goals will flow for Owen his canny movement will ensure that but United must spread the goalscoring responsibility around quickly. For now, the champions are overly dependent on Rooney.