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Wayne Rooney injured as Manchester United toil

14 January 2009 10:16
After just 54 seconds of a tricky fixture against on-form local rivals, life was so good for the Stretford End that they burst into a joyous chorus of one of their favourite ditties, generously enquiring as to viewing habits on Merseyside.

No doubt, ensconced in their Southport and Crosby mansions, Rafa Benitez and his players were indeed watching, nervously, as United cut Wigan to ribbons with a move of such precision and class that some will have been tempted to change channel.

Dimitar Berbatov played an exquisite ball with the outside of his boot, Cristiano Ronaldo hurtled past Maynor Figueroa and centred for Wayne Rooney to tap home. United, flying, their main rivals dispatched at the weekend, second in the league, a game in hand and Liverpool in their sights. 'Are you watching Merseyside?'

The scoreline may not have changed, but that sentiment almost certainly did. United's fans will have left Old Trafford on Wednesday night hoping Merseyside – and London, for that matter - switched off after those 54 magical seconds, because the 89 minutes that followed served only to dispel the myth that United can already order the bunting for their third coronation in as many years.

Rooney, who limped off after eight minutes with a hamstring injury that will rule him out for three weeks, can be added to an ever growing injury list which already includes Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra.

Equally worrying, though, was the lacklustre, disjointed performance. Passes were misplaced, set pieces wasted. Ferguson may have chosen to take the chance after the game to aim a broadside at Chelsea, but he will know only too well that his side are far from home and dry.

'Wigan played very well. I thought they were excellent,' he said. 'They're the best team to have played here this season, I'm sure of that.

'We didn't play well in the second half. We were carrying a lot of injuries and that told. But in my experience on top is the place to be, and that's where we will be if we beat Bolton.'

This should have been a game in which United offered their riposte to Manchester City's status as the north-west's headline act. United may have spent Sunday crushing Chelsea with the world watching, but City are the side enthralling the planet in their attempts to buy Kaka.

Credit must go to Wigan for making sure that United did not find regaining their stolen thunder easy. If Sunday's showing is anything to go by, Chelsea's footballing aristocrats would have crumbled had they conceded so early. Ferguson, prescient as ever, had outlined in his programme notes that a more 'homely' side would prove more resilient.

He was quite right. Had the Scot desired a vignette to illustrate the difference between Wigan's resolve and Chelsea's fragility, there was Titus Bramble, hurtling back to deny Carlos Tevez on the line after the Argentine, racing on to John O'Shea's header, rounded Chris Kirkland.

There was Mario Melchiot diving in to block Paul Scholes' edge of the box blast after Tevez failed to convert Nani's cross. Or he could have chosen Amr Zaki, tossing his gloves to the ground as Wigan sensed there was something in the game for them, just as there was at Stamford Bridge last year, or should have been at Anfield in September.

After the break, it almost got to the stage where United were hanging on. The best chances fell to the visitors, Zaki shooting straight at Van der Sar from just eight yards after Ryan Taylor's header fell into his path and Heskey heading wide after Antonio Valencia ghosted past John O'Shea.

Steve Bruce said: 'I saw them training last night and could tell that the boys fancied it. Mind you, you have to play well when you come here.

'I thought Valencia was excellent all night. If we'd got on the end of one of his 10, 12, 15 crosses we'd have got something out of it.'

The cliché trotted out after wins like this, narrow and nervous, is that it is the mark of champions to win despite playing badly. Against his better judgment, even a manager as cynical as Ferguson will reach for the panacea of that rehashed rationale this morning.

For now, the momentum in the title race remains at the confluence of the East Lancs Road and the M6. Should United fail to wake up from the excesses of excellence upon which they gorged themselves against Chelsea, it will not stay there for long.

Source: Telegraph