Wayne Rooney impresses on return from injury for Manchester United against Aston Villa
By Peter Smith
Last Updated: 17/04/16 11:23am
Wayne Rooney returned to Manchester United's starting line-up for the first time in two months for the 1-0 win over Aston Villa - and served up a reminder of his importance, writes Peter Smith...
Wayne Rooney's standing took a hit while he was out injured.
The Manchester United skipper had scored seven goals in nine games when a knee injury in mid-February took him out of action but, in his absence, fellow England strikers Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy further enhanced their cases for a starting spot at Euro 2016.
Tottenham ace Kane bagged seven in eight Premier League games, while Vardy opened his England account with an outrageous flicked finish in the brilliant win against world champions Germany in Berlin, before following it up with another strike against the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, at United, Marcus Rashford has emerged from the youth ranks to become Louis van Gaal's first-choice striker.
The 18-year-old made his United debut and scored six goals in 11 appearances while Rooney was on the treatment table.
Rashford improved that scoring streak with another well-taken finish against now-relegated Aston Villa on Saturday - but Rooney played a key role in the build-up and, in his first start back from injury, delivered a timely reminder of why, despite the form of others, he remains a key figure for club and country.
Deployed behind Rashford, Rooney linked United's defence with their attack, dropping deep to take the ball from Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia, or receiving the ball on the half-turn between Aston Villa's midfield and backline.
Valencia and Rooney combine
Wayne Rooney exchanged 15 passes with attacking full-back Antonio Valencia
Allowed time in possession by the struggling visitors, the United captain combined with Juan Mata well in the early stages, although an over-hit chipped through-ball for the Spaniard hinted at rustiness.
Rooney played a very good first half. He switched the play a lot of times - the goal was a fantastic switch. In the second half, he loses the ball because he's tiring. When (you have been) two months out, it's difficult.
Louis van Gaal on Rooney's return
Rooney's ball-striking wasn't in question on 32 minutes though; the 30-year-old fired a raking, diagonal pass from the halfway line deep into Villa territory which found Antonio Valencia with stunning precision.
The delivery presented the Ecuadorian with time and space to pick out Rashford in the box, who turned in a smart shot to break the deadlock.
Warming to his task, Rooney fired a curling long-range effort into Brad Guzan's arms two minutes later before pinging another excellent cross-field pass to the ever-willing Valencia.
Once Rooney started spraying the balls around, you could see he was starting to enjoy it. He comfortably felt his way back into the game.
An expertly-weighted, defence-splitting pass into the box for Mata followed, but Rooney also showed off his defensive attributes, too; the skipper timed a textbook sliding tackle to dispossess Jordan Ayew at the end of the first period.
That was one of three tackles Rooney made during his time on the field. No United player had made more before he was withdrawn.
Rooney also won five of his six duels and while his touch suggested he was tiring towards the end of his 67-minute stint, he can reflect on a happy return to Premier League action.
Rooney's absence had been felt by United. In the 12 games he missed they managed to win just six, exiting the Europa League to Liverpool and suffering league defeats at West Brom and Tottenham which have damaged their top-four ambitions.
To make those Champions League qualifying spots, United will need a near faultless run-in and there's an FA Cup semi-final to come, too. A fit-again Rooney will be a major boost to Louis van Gaal for both tests.
After a frustrating spell on the sidelines, Rooney is back and primed to remind his doubters of his importance.