Pogba-inspired United brushes aside Fenerbahce
THERE was a wonderful, sentimental moment at the end, when Robin van Persie stepped in ahead of Luke Shaw to convert a cross and put a ball into an Old Trafford net once again, while Sir Alex Ferguson, watching with affection, smiled and clapped. Van Persie underplayed the celebration out of a respect for the place he this week called "home.”
It didn't have the slightest significance on the course of a night in which Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba stamped their authority, easing United towards what looks like a two-way fight with Feyenoord to win Europa League Group A. But the moment was sustaining all the same.
Hard to believe that we have not even counted out 18 months since Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie last appeared on a football field together, at West Bromwich Albion on the day when Manchester United's 1-0 defeat was part of a deepening malaise.
It was with a mood of celebration that the Dutchman was welcomed back on Thursday night, in Fenerbahce colours, to the club he left in such a hurry, infuriated when Louis van Gaal said he had doubts and determined to take the first ticket out of town. But the occasion showed how quickly the flame is extinguished in a player. Rooney and van Persie both led their team's lines and were spectral figures as they did so.
Footage of the last time Wayne Rooney faced Fenerbahce was playing on a continuous loop on Manchester United's in-house television station before the kick-off: September 2004, of course, and that debut when the boy with short cropped hair and baby face scored a hat-trick and one of the newspaper chroniclers declared of him that "the Messiah has come to Manchester”.
His world has turned abruptly. Rooney's first United start since a League Cup tie at Northampton last month hardly came with the message that the big man was back, to borrow from the words when he kicked off injury to arrive belatedly at the 2004 World Cup. Jose Mourinho stationed him at centre forward, a position he cannot conceivably hope to retain against more serious competition than this. That left him marooned between the twin pillars of Dane Simon Kjaer and a masked Martin Skrtel. There was no way over them and, on the evidence of Skrtel reaching out a foot to calmly dispossess the striker 20 minutes in, no way of accelerating around him, either.
But the 30-year-old's marginal place was most evident when two penalties were awarded in a three-minute period just after the half hour. Somehow, it seemed out of the question that Rooney would step up for either, though those two goals would have put him on the brink of history one goal behind Sir Bobby Charlton's record tally of 248 for the club. Pogba struck the first, right-footed to Volkan Demirel's right; Anthony Martial the second - same foot, same place. Rooney ambled up with some congratulations at 2-0 but it didn't look like his heart was in it.
It was left to others whose futures have looked in doubt to demonstrate to manager Jose Mourinho that they have a little more football left in then. There certainly didn't seem much hope for Juan Mata in that respect when the new manager arrived, though was the creator of much that was good in what United did. The way he drew down an imperious 40-yard ball from Michael Carrick provided a moment of touch and class utterly missing from Monday night's Chelsea-esque physical stalemate at Anfield. It drew a clumsy foul by Kjaer which brought the first penalty.
Mata provided the incisive pass at pace which drew the second penalty, too. Martial, the recipient of the ball, was bundled down from behind by Sener Ozbayrakli. The third goal belonged to the new guard. Rooney sent a slightly misdirected pass behind Jesse Lingard who teed it up for Paul Pogba's 30-yard rocket shot on the stroke of half time.
The Turkish side had next to nothing to offer. David de Gea was called upon rarely, blocking the ball with his knees after Souza had committed rashly to challenge him and teed up a low shot. But the game was effectively over by the interval and Lingard barely needed to celebrate after he had guided in a fourth from just outside the area three minutes after the half-time interval. Rooney could claim a contribution, ferrying Pogba's pass across the face of the area and into his compatriot's path. Van Persie had done barely more than spin a shot wide before he scored.
It was the Dutchman who took the applause at the end, departing to the same rendition of his name that he was treated to in the three seasons when he was celebrated here. Rooney has given them 12 years but he is disappearing without an ounce of pity. He's played the club for new contracts twice. Supporters have long memories in these parts.