Pitchside

‘Swashbuckling’ Rooney the man making United tick

Pitchside

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Manchester United sealed their spot in the knock-outs of the Champions League in style on Wednesday night, with a resounding and clinical 5-0 victory in Germany, away to Bayer Leverkusen.

A game which could easily have been a difficult one for United to get a result from turned into one of their results of the season, thanks in no small part to centre-forward Wayne Rooney.

It was far from a one-man performance, with the likes of Ryan Giggs putting in a stellar performance and Jonny Evans making a fantastic block while the scores were still at 0-0, but it was certainly Rooney who made the telling difference, time and time again, as United put Leverkusen to the sword.

A far cry from the doubts surrounding his future at the start of the season, Rooney is arguably United's form player at the present moment and, restored to a true striker's role in the continued absence of Robin van Persie, he led the line for United with his usual problematic blend of swashbuckling energy and delicate, subtle grace on the ball.

Despite not getting his name on the score-sheet in a 5-0 rout for his team, the No. 10 was central to all of United's best attacking moves and was heavily involved in all of the first four goals.

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A quick counter attack saw him pick the ball up on the left flank before putting a dangerous, curling cross toward the back post for Antonio Valencia to prod home the opening goal, before he delivered the free kick which was headed into his own net by Emir Spahic.

Rooney's best chance of finding the net came on 65 minutes, but his scrambled, close-range shot was saved by Bernd Leno—only for Evans to stab home the third goal. Rooney's final telling contribution in the penalty area was a lofted pass over Leno, or perhaps a slightly under-hit shot, which fell invitingly for Chris Smalling to tap home.

Four goals, 4-0, four big Rooney contributions to make the difference.

By the time a killer chance fell to a United centre-forward, Rooney had already been substituted, given a deserved rest toward the end of the game, allowing Nani to run through and finish for 5-0.

Rooney's movement, willingness to work for the team and create space for others is often what makes him such a dangerous player for the opposition to deal with; dropping deep into the midfield line, picking the ball up in his own half, taking dead balls and drifting out to the flanks are all in his repertoire and he utilised that floating nonchalance to great effect in the BayArena.

His heat map shows that he rarely picked up the ball inside the Leverkusen penalty area—yet was still such a huge threat to their defence.

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Of course, movement without precision and vision means little, and Rooney's end product was consistently of the highest standard. Indeed, he misplaced just three of his passes all game long, with plenty of those occurring in or penetrating into the final third. Three shots during the game, including his saved effort which Evans finished off, showed that he did his striker's role well too, with a curling effort in the second half, from outside the penalty area, particularly close to giving him the goal he deserved.

United will head through to the knock-out stages in good confidence after going unbeaten, so far, in the group stages. With the likes of Rooney in fine form, they will have every reason to believe they can make a significant impact on the tournament this time around.

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