Manchester United stayed in pole position to make the knockout stage of the Champions League, with an early own goal giving them a 1-0 win over Real Sociedad at Old Trafford. The only goal of the game arrived inside two minutes when Inigo Martinez haplessly put the ball into his own net after fine play by Wayne Rooney.
Again in the spotlight following the release of Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, Rooney continued to do his talking on the pitch with a wonderful display. All that was missing was missing from the man who turns 28 on Thursday was a goal for. Indeed, all that was absent from United’s performance was more goals. With Ryan Giggs alongside Michael Carrick and Shinji Kagawa coming into the side, the tempo of United’s play was much better than it has been for much of David Moyes’ early reign. The scoreline could and should have been more emphatic.
There was, though, still one concerning spell for United at the start of the second half, when United’s defense, lacking the authority of Nemanja Vidic, looked less than secured. Fear of a repeat from Saturday, when Southampton came back to equalize, was in the air. In truth, Sociedad, who are all but out of contention with their third-straight loss, lacked the quality to get back in the game and United will face much sterner challenges ahead. For the time being, though, United sit top of Group A on seven points, although they have Bayer Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk snapping at their heels. The Premier League champions travel to Sociedad in two weeks’ time.
After another disappointing result at the weekend, Moyes will have been delighted by his side’s start. United’s soaring early tempo led to Patrice Evra wining the ball back high up the pitch. Rooney assumed possession and showed the scintillating individual skill of his youth as he went past three defenders cutting in from the left before shooting at goal as he lost his balance. The effort came back off the far post but caught Inigo Martinez slow to react and the center-back bewilderingly bundled the ball into his own net.
The strong start from the home side continued. Javier Hernandez was twice denied by the officials, first when appealing for a penalty when trying to get on the end of a cross and then having been adjudged offside before heading into the net. Rooney had a fine chance too. From Rafael’s cross, he failed to direct his volley adequately and Claudio Bravo was able to make a good low save.
Sociedad, unable to cope with United’s play in the early stages, finally started to get a foothold in the match as the half progressed. And they twice came close to getting an equalizer before the interval. First, Haris Seferovic hit a strong shot from the edge of the area that took a deflection off Jonny Evans and required David de Gea to tip over the bar. And two minutes before the break, Antoine Griezmann hit the crossbar with a well-struck free-kick.
That slight momentum shift became a drastic one at the start of the second half. It was now the turn of United’s defense to look utterly panicked and in disarray as Sociedad swarmed toward their goal. In one frantic exchange, the visited peppered the opposition box with shots and crosses as United failed to clear their lines. After several near-misses Jonny Evans ended the danger in unconvincing manner by slicing over his own bar. Sociedad hit the crossbar for the second time too, with Alberto de la Bella’s presumed cross from the left almost catching out De Gea.
United, initially found that attack was their best form of defense, as the match became increasingly open. Phil Jones should have done better than head straight at Bravo from Kagawa’s cross. The gifted Japanese was becoming increasingly influential, while United began to reassert their authority with him coming more inside and Rooney dropping deeper into midfield.
A second goal, though, just wouldn’t come. Valencia struck the woodwork, while Kagawa failed to capitalize on the rebound and the two combined once more moments later when the Ecuadorian’s cut back saw Kagawa take a touch and be closed down when he should have shot first time.
Rooney and Kagawa missed further chances late on, but the pair showed the promise of a relationship that could help alleviate some of the gloom surrounding that has surrounded Old Trafford in recent weeks.