Wayne Rooney’s 200th goal for Manchester United highlighted a winning start to life in the Champions League for David Moyes. A 4-2 victory over Bayer Leverkusen at Old Trafford was in the end comfortable but was not without its tension and fortune along the way.
Indeed Rooney’s opening goal midway through the first half should never had stood after Antonio Valencia impeded Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno on the line when in an offside position. Some slackness at the back early in the second half allowed the visitors to equalize through Simon Rolfes’ deflected effort before Robin van Persie restored United’s lead.
More poor defending almost allowed Leverkusen to equalize once more, but United, inspired by a fine showing from Rooney then took control. The forward, seemingly back to full fitness, capitalized on a defensive mishap at the other end to make the result safe before setting up Valencia to make it 4-1 with just over 11 minutes remaining. There was still time for United to display more vulnerability at the back, though, as De Gea came and flapped at a corner allowing Omer Toprak to score a late consolation.
It certainly wasn’t a faultless performance from the Premier League champions, but they were well worth the victory against a far too passive visiting Bundesliga side. Undoubtedly the chief encouragement for Moyes will come from the performance of Rooney. The England international appears to have put his summer of unrest behind him and, on this display, it is easy to see why United considered it unthinkable to sell him to one of their rivals for the Premier League.
Other than the errors at the back, United were much improved from their displays so far this season, Marouane Fellaini, on his full United debut, hinted at his ability to form a strong partnership with Michael Carrick, while Shinji Kagawa, in his first start of the season, added an extra element of creativity.
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United began brightly against a Leverkusen side that appeared happy to pack men behind the ball, while showing little commitment to getting men forward. With 22 minutes gone, United got the goal that their play warranted, although Leverkusen have every reason to be aggrieved at the strike itself. Rooney met Patrice Evra’s cross with a volley into the turf that went past Leno, but only with the help of Valencia, who, if he didn’t obstruct the goalkeeper, he certainly distracted him from an offside position.
United looked comfortable in their lead and their advantage might have been extended before half-time too. From Kagawa’s slick through ball, Van Persie elected to pull the ball back rather than go himself while the Japanese creator had a shot blocked just wide.
While those opportunities weren’t clear cut, there was no doubting the strength of the opening just after the break. Toprak’s slip on the edge of his own box allowed Rooney a clear run on goal. The forward got the first piece right by going round Leno, but then shot wide from the angle rather than picking out Van Persie for a simple tap in.
By that point there had already been signs of some sluggishness from the home side at the start of the second half when Rio Ferdinand’s poor defensive header allowed Sidney Sam to test David de Gea for the first time. Yet, United failed to heed the warning and in the 54th minute the visitors were level.
Heung-Min Son was able to easily hold off United’s defenders inside the box before laying the ball back to Rolfes, whose curled effort took the slightest of deflections off of Michael Carrick that proved enough to divert it just inside the near post past an unmoved De Gea.
Suddenly Moyes was looking at a less than satisfactory start to his first campaign in the Champions League. But not for the first time since his arrival from Arsenal, Van Persie came up with a touch of quality when his side needed it most. Antonio Valencia’s chipped cross went behind Van Persie, but the Dutchman, despite not being at his best throughout the evening, produced an instinctive hooked volley with his weaker right foot that caught Leno completely unawares and the young goalkeeper could only help the ball into the net with a poor attempted one-handed save.
It was an encounter characterized by defensive errors. Two more followed in a matter of seconds at either end of the pitch that ultimately decided the result. First, more hesitation by Ferdinand led to an effort by substitute Lars Bender that, thankfully for United, was straight at De Gea. The Spanish goalkeeper immediately launched a long ball forward that Emir Spahic completely misjudged, allowing Rooney to once more run clear on goal and this time he make no mistake with a clinical finish.
In the closing minutes, United showed that they still retain their trademark threat on the break with a flowing move that culminated with Rooney shifting the ball for Valencia to slam home. Toprak’s late consolation courtesy of more defensive insecurity did little dampen the Old Trafford crowd but it is something Moyes will certainly have to address going forward.