Manchester United started the match against Hull City this weekend with two former teenage wonders and former England partners spearheading the attack. They may have been on the same wavelength at times during the encounter but there is no doubt that they are poles apart in terms of their current fortunes.
Wayne Rooney was in sublime form as his goal scoring exploits would suggest drawing praise from both Sir Alex Ferguson and Phil Brown. The latter stating he felt that Rooney is one of the top strikers in world football. His 19 goals so far this season suggest that this may be the case but if he is to go into this summer’s world cup feared by every player and coach alike he must be aiming to hit the 35 goal mark and not simply beat his United career best of 23. Michael Owen on the other hand looked woefully short of confidence in front of goal. His approach play in tandem with Rooney in the first half was fantastic just seeming to fall apart when presented with a goal scoring opportunity. Owen was handed at least two glorious chances which would have been dispatched with ease in his teens and early 20’s but which now seem to fry his nerves. Ferguson is reluctant to re-ignite the former England partnership due to his determination for Rooney to be the spearhead of the attack playing furthest forward with Dimitar Berbatov seemingly the better suited partner.
Ideally Owen would like to play on the shoulder of the defence linking onto slide rule passes in between defenders. Consequently Berbatov is more of an ideal partner for Owen also. The problem thus for Owen is the obvious reluctance to starting without Rooney severely limited his game time. On the odd occasions when selected to play with Rooney, Owen has to drop deeper and influence the play. Something which he is not always comfortable with and is reminiscent of his time at Newcastle. His approach play has improved and was at times adept against Hull but this change in role seems to have robbed him of his greatest attribute – extreme confidence in front of goal. United looked much more of a potent force when Berbatov was introduced and with the need to hit a consistent run of wins it is hard to see when Owen’s next opportunity will arrive. Another player given an opportunity to impress against Hull was Nani. A player seemingly surplus to requirements and many people’s tip to be leaving Old Trafford this January delivered what many believe to be his best performance in a United shirt. His contribution to an encounter against Arsenal in his first season may just be the shining light in his United career but this was certainly a performance of the type his talent suggests at.
A player frustrating to both teammates and supporters alike with his reluctance to release the ball he seemed to master his decision making of when to run with it and when to cross perfectly. Countless times he delivered precise crosses that former United wingers would have been proud of and it was only until Rooney’s third goal that the United forwards did his tireless efforts justice. If Nani can consistently perform in this manner and is given the run of games he craves then he could become an integral part of the team until the end of the season. Furthermore, if he can adapt this to the left flank allowing the impressive Antonio Valencia free reign of the right wing then United could be devastating out wide. There is however a serious question mark over whether Nani does in fact have the requisite application to achieve this.
The green and yellow clad United fans were also witness to the return of another long term absentee in Rio Ferdinand. He was able to play the full 90 minutes and for the main part was fairly comfortable, apart from the odd scare at 1-0 and when the attentions of Craig Fagan became a little too much off the ball. It is imperative for the rest of United’s season that Ferdinand can put his problems with both injury and form behind him. At times his partnership with Jonny Evans looked fragile when defending from set pieces. Some poor play in the air nearly let in Nicky Barmby early on, but this may be down to a lack of match practice for both players concerned.
With this week’s Carling Cup semi-final second leg, the United defence will have to regain the form of last season if they are to keep the clean sheet that the aggregate score line desperately needs. Ferdinand will be pleased with his overall performance against Hull and will be relishing the chance to show his mistakes from the derby earlier in the season were just a blip. If United can achieve this considering the form of Rooney, likely to be in tandem with Berbatov, confidence of a second League Cup final in as many years is likely to be high.