Wayne Rooney ended Manchester United’s goal drought with a 79th-minute winner as his side overcame CSKA Moscow 1-0 on Tuesday to close on the Champions League knockout phase.
United were on course to record a fourth consecutive goalless draw for the first time in their history as their scoreless run ticked into its 404th minute when under-fire skipper Rooney met Jesse Lingard’s cushioned pass with a thumping header in front of the Stretford End.
Moments earlier, Chris Smalling had produced a goal-line clearance to thwart Seydou Doumbia and the two decisive moments contributed to a much-needed win that sent Louis van Gaal’s side to the top of Group B with two games to play.
“It is unbelievable because we have created at least 12 chances and had to wait a long time,” Van Gaal told BT Sport.
“Before that they could have scored and then it is a different match. I am happy. We played well.”
It had threatened to turn into an infamous night for Van Gaal, who was booed by the home fans for replacing Anthony Martial with Marouane Fellaini, but instead he can look ahead to the home game against PSV Eindhoven on November 25 with hope of making the last 16 fully intact.
Rooney, meanwhile, now stands level with Denis Law in second place in the all-time United scoring table on 237 goals, 12 behind Bobby Charlton’s record.
“Denis Law is a legend at this club and to equal his goal-scoring record is a huge honour for me,” Rooney said.
United’s fans’ anxieties about their team’s goal-scoring problems were apparent even before the game, with the home support chanting “Attack! Attack! Attack!” as the teams awaited kick-off.
Van Gaal’s team selection reflected his eagerness to address the matter, with Martial restored to a central striking role alongside Rooney.
The subject of widespread criticism over his recent displays, Rooney was immediately in the thick of action, hitting a snapshot wide, almost latching onto a loose back-pass from Mario Fernandes and then slipping a pass through to Lingard that forced Igor Akinfeev to slide out and save.
Penalty or Dive?
Having each chanced their arm from distance, Lingard and left-back Marcos Rojo both squandered opportunities created by auxiliary right-back Ashley Young, the former hoisting over from close range, the latter slicing a volley wide from the former Aston Villa man’s deep cross.
The hosts continued to create half-chances early in the second half, Rojo heading wide from a Rooney corner and Martial heading straight at Akinfeev.
But clear chances were scarce, as United struggled with both the penultimate and final pass, and when Van Gaal sent on Fellaini in place of Martial in the 66th minute, boos rang out around Old Trafford.
Events threatened to take a farcical turn shortly after when Rooney was unable to convert Juan Mata’s pass from all of five yards, first seeing his shot blocked by Georgi Schennikov and then allowing the ball to squirm away from him.
Still United pressed, with Young denied a penalty after tumbling over Schennikov’s challenge and Michael Carrick volleying wide from outside the box.
It might have been much worse, however, had it not been for Smalling, who slid in to prevent Doumbia’s shot crossing the line after the CSKA substitute had been denied by goalkeeper David de Gea.
The importance of Smalling’s intervention became immediately clear as United went down the field and procured the goal their supporters craved, with Carrick’s deep pass superbly volleyed back across goal by Lingard for Rooney to head home his seventh goal of the campaign.
The United captain’s relief was evident in his celebration and so was the return of his self-belief, an artful pass shortly after teeing up Lingard for a lusty strike that Akinfeev fisted behind.
“The moment with Seydou Doumbia contributed to the final result,” said CSKA coach Leonid Slutsky, whose team had not lost in their 10 previous matches. “It’s difficult to create chances in a game against Man United.”