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Apr 9, 2006

Living up to the hype

Past, present and future collided in enthralling fashion at Old Trafford and, is so often the case, Wayne Rooney dominated. As, 50 years on, Manchester United remembered the Busby Babes' first title, their successors maintained their slim hopes of a ninth Premiership crown.

When the Busby Babes were beating Blackpool in 1956, a certain 15-year-old Brazilian was two years away from winning his first World Cup and a half-century away from being likened to Manchester United's current idol. While Manchester United youngsters can be saddled with comparisons with their predecessors, Rooney has little to live up to; he has been christened 'the white Pele'. No pressure there, Wayne.

'Manchester United has always been built on young players who entertained,' said Sir Alex Ferguson. 'Matt Busby started a legacy and we try to live up to it. Wayne Rooney, at times, was absolutely sensational.'

And on a day for celebrating emerging talent, it was only fitting that he emerged triumphant. Ferguson and Arsene Wenger share a commitment to developing teams with a youthful heart and, for 20 minutes, Arsenal's cosmopolitan collection were the more convincing.

Then United, and Rooney, assumed control. The unlimited potential of the player who, like the Busby Babes in the 1950s, offers the promise of 15 years of excellence, determined the outcome of another match in United's favour.

The Champions League's meanest defence were beaten first in the 54th minute when Mikael Silvestre's cross eluded Philippe Senderos and Rooney rifled home. Victory was sealed when Rooney escaped from the inside right channel, withstood Senderos' attempt to tackle him and squared the ball to give Ji-Sung Park a simple tap-in.

And yet the abiding image of Rooney came in the closing minutes when, with United's two-goal lead looking safe, he appeared in the left-back position, covering for Silvestre, jostling with substitute Freddie Ljungberg and ultimately earning his side a goal kick.

Pele's competence as a left back is unknown. Rooney, however, did establish that Kolo Toure's talents extend to goalkeeping. Such is the Ivorian's versatility that, during his first 18 months at Highbury, he appeared in almost every outfield position. He appeared an able deputy for Jens Lehmann, too, when Rooney sprung the offside trap, rounded the German - though the goalkeeper's touch on the ball forced him wider - and struck a shot that appeared headed for Senderos, stood on the goal line.

Instead, Toure, recovering after slipping to the ground, managed a double-handed save that, via the post, deflected the ball to safety. Graham Poll, often praised by Sir Alex Ferguson, missed it completely; no penalty, no red card and, in a fixture where the hatred has bordered on the visceral, no reprisals, surprisingly.

Rooney's second-half display meant Ferguson could afford to be generous, both to the official (who went unmentioned) and Arsenal.

'These are two fantastic football clubs who go head-to-head and provide some great football,' he added. 'The build-up was fantastic, the form of both sides was superb and Arsenal's form in Europe was fantastic. They always start well, but it was a great performance from us. I thought we had to go and attack them.'

Which is, after the opening exchanges, what they did. A shared commitment to attack, however, revealed different methods, reflecting on the strengths of both sides. Arsenal, with slick inter-passing and Alexander Hleb and Robert Pires tucking in, concentrated their advances in the centre.

Cesc Fabregas, both with his exceptional passing and his ability to elude his markers at will, was at the heart of their best moves. United were at their strongest down the flanks and when they pierced the Arsenal offside trap, with Rooney either the perpetrator or the recipient.

Arsenal's talisman, Thierry Henry, could only watch. Benched - a consequence of the Gunners' fixture backlog and with a far more winnable game against Portsmouth on Wednesday - it was an indication that the Champions League is Arsenal's major priority. Not that Wenger, commendably honest, albeit with his view of Toure's handball predictably obscured, used that as an excuse.

He said: 'It wasn't a major factor. We have lost with Thierry Henry on the pitch. We didn't concede because he was on the bench.

'We were not as sharp as we could be and Man United were sharper today. It diminished our chances [of finishing fourth] today, but it is still in our hands mathematically.'

As, mathematically, is finishing first for United. After a ninth straight win, Chelsea remain in their sights. Ferguson added: 'Obviously we have to go to Stamford Bridge and win. We need a collapse, but that's what happened to us in 1992. They have to go to Bolton and Newcastle so there's a lot of things in our favour.' Including the presence of Wayne Rooney.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney - it really couldn't be anyone else.

UNITED VERDICT: Among their best performances of the season, with the incision of Cristiano Ronaldo and Park on the flanks and the solidity of Rio Ferdinand in the centre of defence among many plus points. Ryan Giggs emerged as an influence in the centre of the midfield, too, though John O'Shea's reluctance to close down Fabregas was an isolated negative.

ARSENAL VERDICT: The previously watertight defence had their offside trap sprung by Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy too often for comfort. They missed Henry, too; neither Robin van Persie nor Emmanuel Adebayor, whose Kanu-esque tendencies sometimes slowed played down unnecessarily, was able to get behind the United back four.

WHERE'S SOL? 'The situation is that he is available to play,' said Wenger. But he kept the same back four, while Johan Djourou was the defender on the bench.


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