United party like it's 1999
The immortals have company. They are only sharing their perch now. It may have to be vacated on Saturday to accommodate a team deemed their inferiors but still amassing the figures to surpass them. Manchester United's treble winners of 1999 were statistically Old Trafford's greatest side, winning the three most coveted trophies in the same season and setting a club record of 29 unbeaten league games. Now that has been equalled by the class of 2011. Now only Wolverhampton Wanderers can deprive them of pre-eminence.
Aston Villa came closest to aborting the undefeated streak. Not on Tuesday night, though, but in November, as United staged a feat of escapology to salvage a point at Villa Park, Sir Alex Ferguson asserted his charges could have lost by six goals but ended up drawing 2-2. In the return fixture, another scoreline proved deceptive: a six-goal margin of victory might have flattered them, but not by much. A landmark was levelled in style.
Its instigator was an infrequent contributor over the last ten months. A frustration and limitation at times, Wayne Rooney served as inspiration on this occasion. "They managed to win a lot of games and remain unbeaten without him," Gerard Houllier said. "He was on top of his game today. He had everything: control, turn, twist, he defends, he works hard." Scoring two goals and creating one served as a further reminder of Rooney's qualities and a sharp riposte to suggestions Javier Hernandez should displace him.
January was a month to highlight and elevate the premium placed on goalscorers. Five of them had a combined cost of £160 million in the inflationary transfer window yet, but for a change of heart, Rooney might have been the most expensive of all. Instead, he may have to settle for being the best paid.
Remuneration brought a return - Rooney's first goals in open play at Old Trafford since March. If the floodgates are opening, it is in part because Richard Dunne served as a lousy patrolman. Only 45 seconds had elapsed when Edwin van der Sar added an assist to his many achievements. His quickly-taken free kick found Dunne dozing. Rooney controlled it deftly and finished it forcefully.
"He needed a goal. We gave it," Houllier added succinctly. "Fantastic vision from Edwin van der Sar and a great strike," Ferguson said. "Wayne Rooney was absolutely fantastic. He has got a great appetite to play and he gets his rewards eventually."
His goals bookended the first half. The second was neatly taken on the volley after Nani delivered the sort of curling cross that renders defenders irrelevant. The third, staving off a Villa fightback, was supplied by him. When the forward selflessly teed him up, Nemanja Vidic finished with a flourish. The Serb blended power and panache as his shot flew past Brad Friedel.
Friedel, 39, succeeded Ernie 'Mush' Callaghan as Villa's oldest ever player (regrettably, very few footballers are called either Ernie or Mush any more) and he was kept busy. He thwarted Nani three times plus Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra and Rooney. All were indications of his excellence and United's dominance. Seniority was no impediment to Friedel's athleticism, even if the American was the younger goalkeeper in action.
His opposite number, Van der Sar, was largely untroubled, but could have conceded twice in the space of a few minutes. Stewart Downing whipped in a cross for Darren Bent, suddenly only the fifth dearest striker of 2011, to convert emphatically. It is one of the stranger statistics that Bent has scored for three different teams in three successive seasons while visiting Old Trafford, all without winning. A second point in that spell was threatened when Ashley Young clipped the bar but it wouldn't have been merited.
Not that Villa were abject. "The players have to take some pride in their performance," Houllier added. "We also have to acknowledge that we were beaten by a side that played brilliantly. Wayne Rooney and Giggs were absolutely awesome."
And on United marched, three points nearer the historic 19th title and already ensuring one entry into the record books. Terrific on the night, they nevertheless still lack the concrete accomplishments, the midfield mastery and the thrilling virtuosity of their counterparts in 1999. Nostalgia can distort comparisons but a combined team would only feature Rooney, on last season's form, but not on this. Vidic, Evra and Dimitar Berbatov have stronger cases, although it is a moot question which Giggs would be selected: the unreconstructed flyer of 1999 or the ageing but somehow ageless artist of 2011. While others are set on supplanting their predecessors, Giggs is about to win the battle with his own past.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney. A player who appears to have an unstoppable momentum at his best is suddenly rampaging where he was rusty. Mediocre at Blackpool seven days before, Rooney was marauding in time-honoured fashion.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: This was one of their best performances of the season. The number of opportunities fashioned should be a cause of encouragement and, playing in his seventh successive match at the age of 37, Giggs was involved in many of them. The marvel has ensured Ji-Sung Park's absence at the Asian Cup has passed virtually unnoticed. His fellow pensioner, Paul Scholes, was spared the game, suggesting he will start at Molineux.
ASTON VILLA VERDICT: Their run of three successive wins ended and only Friedel spared them a heavier defeat, but some encouragement could be derived from the football Villa played. Unlike many an opponent at Old Trafford, they displayed an attacking intent and a real threat while Jean Makoun impressed in the midfield.