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Aug 28, 2010

Hammers invite Rooney to end goal drought

The celebration was so understated it verged on the non-existent. It was a nonchalant, matter-of-fact reaction that, perhaps deliberately, didn't provide an accurate reflection of the context. But then it scarcely needed explaining: the well-wishers in the Stretford End knew it, their cheers laced with relief. Wayne Rooney had scored again.

• Manchester United 3-0 West Ham
• Ferguson hails team performance
• Premier League Gallery

An alternative explanation is that a penalty against a lamentable West Ham side is barely worth celebrating. Avram Grant's undistinguished side seem the ideal opponents for strikers who have mislaid the path to goal - even Johan Elmander scored twice against them last week - and this amounted to an invitation to Rooney to open his account. Nevertheless, his reaction would have appeared more appropriate in the large swathes of last season, when he was a goal-a-game man, rather than after the longest wait of his career. After an ill-fated outing in the Allianz Arena in March, a goal and an injury bookending the match in Munich, came a five-month hiatus in the scoring stakes, belatedly concluded in the 33rd minute.

It was a mere 1,114 minutes after his previous strike and, wonderfully, the club's in-house television station contrived to describe Rooney's drought as "alleged", but it was over when Jonathan Spector fouled Ryan Giggs and the resulting penalty was dispatched beyond Robert Green.

Back in the goals, this was a restorative occasion for Rooney. Without being rampant, he is recuperating after a troubled summer. When he was pinging passes to the opposite flank or deftly setting up Nani for United's second goal, the watching Fabio Capello presumably realised that this is a different player from the blunt spearhead of England's attack in South Africa.

"The performance from him was the thing that stood out," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "He enjoyed his football today. He was full of energy which was good."

There was much to enjoy for United. Their second goal one to savour, Paul Scholes and Rooney combining slickly for the latter to slide a pass to the advancing Nani. He sprinted on to whip a shot past Green.

The winger's was a performance to highlight why, of Manchester United's many midfielders, he has the potential to be the most prolific. While Nani is yet to prove himself the epitome of reliability, he arrives in the penalty area far more frequently than the substitute Antonio Valencia or the unused Ji-sung Park and in a win that could have been far bigger - United's one-sided games end 3-0 whereas Chelsea's are 6-0 - he had the chances to get a hat-trick. Besides his goal, there was a long-range shot that Green was rather fortunate to deflect on to the bar, rather than into the top corner, and a lob that cleared the visitors' net.

It followed a moment that was somehow symbolic of the enduring excellence and continued hunger of two footballing pensioners. Scott Parker was sandwiched by two perfectly clean sliding tackles, one from Giggs and the other from Scholes. He picked out Giggs, whose delectable chip sent Nani free.

Wasteful then, he was more efficient later. A well-placed cross was volleyed in with masterly assurance by Dimitar Berbatov. "He has got fantastic technique," added Ferguson. "It was a marvellous goal."

It was a stylish stroll for his side. In a tale of two Uniteds, West Ham were much the lesser. "The first half was good," said Avram Grant, unconvincingly, while he argued the penalty decision was incorrect. "In the second half they dominated the game."

That was undeniable. Grant was revisiting the scene of his first match as a Premier League manager, a 2-0 defeat for Chelsea, and trips to Old Trafford are no easier now. In three games, he has used three right-backs - the errant Spector was the latest and perhaps the least deserving - and West Ham have conceded three goals each time.

The surprise lay in their outstanding performer. Kieron Dyer has been seen so rarely at Upton Park he might as well be an endangered species. This was only his ninth league start in more than three years at West Ham. With a shot that clipped the post, he was the Hammers' sole threat. But given his injury record, a match that appeared notable for Rooney's return to scoring form, the true rarity value may have lain in the lesser-spotted Dyer's appearance.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Dimitar Berbatov - Among plenty of deserving candidates in the home side, Berbatov's exquisite touch wins him this vote. Besides his goal, a lovely backheel preceded Nani's shot that struck the bar.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson said the collective performance pleased him most and few faults were evident. The defence were rarely tested, but Nemanja Vidic was commanding at the back on the few occasions he was needed, executing two superb tackles on Carlton Cole. Interestingly, the Serbian captained United instead of Giggs, suggesting a change in the pecking order.

WEST HAM VERDICT: Dyer apart, only the typically industrious Scott Parker acquitted himself reasonably well. Pointless so far and with Chelsea next, it is a miserable start to the season for West Ham. While there is a widespread presumption that teams such as Blackpool, Wigan and West Brom are worse, this could be another relegation struggle.

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