Wayne Rooney is centre of attention as United amble past Galati
Manchester United 2 - 0 Otelul Galati: No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson was so reluctant to lavish £35m on Wesley Sneijder. No wonder he was so convinced he could replace Paul Scholes from within that he eschewed matching the Dutchman's extravagant wages.
Most assumed Tom Cleverley would proceed to the dais reserved for Manchester United's conductor.
That, though, was before Wayne Rooney picked up the baton.
So long and glorious has been his 25-year reign – an anniversary marked this weekend – that it should not, perhaps, be any surprise that Ferguson's knowledge is now so deep that he sees things others will never see. He even appears to know his players better than they know themselves.
Few managers, when faced with depleted resources in midfield, would choose to deploy their talismanic striker there, even against opponents as limited as Otelul Galati, even in a competition as processional as the opening exchanges of the Champions League. But that is Ferguson: the vindicated risk-taker. Rooney helped create the first, and unofficially scored the second, casting his spell on a game distinctly lacking in magic.
"He was our best player," said his manager. "He has all the qualities you need in a central midfielder: he has great awareness in that role. His selection of passes was very good, he had great energy and great determination. It was a really good performance. The way he received the ball was very good, and he should take great credit because Otelul were very aggressive in defending and he handled that part very well.
"We have got injuries, and that is one of the reasons we played him. Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick are injured and it is better for Darren Fletcher if he plays on Saturday, so Wayne was an option, and a good option. It is only a short-term thing, I think, for the moment."
With performances like this, though, that may change. Even those who have followed Ferguson's strokes of bold genius over the last two and a half decades would admit removing Rooney from the frontline is particularly daring, but there is no question it is a role which suits the 25-year-old.
He was at the heart of all of the hosts' attacks, covering more ground than any other player on the pitch and completing more passes, too. He dictated tempo, he defined play. The game orbited around him. Some things never change: Rooney has long been United's shining sun.
He seemed to enjoy it, too, admitting it is a position he filled regularly as a youngster and displaying no particular haste to bring his busman's holiday to an end. "I played there a lot when I was younger," Rooney said. "You get a lot of the ball and here we had to defend at times, too. It is down to the manager whether I play here again, but without being big-headed I feel I am a good enough player to play anywhere on the pitch. If the manager wants me in midfield, then I'll play there."
Play there and excel, it seems. Rooney starring seems as inevitable as United nervously edging past Champions League underlings and Michael Owen trotting off injured just as he seems to be hitting form. It was a thigh problem which did for him here, after just 12 minutes.
At least by that stage he had played a part in United's opener. Rooney too, crafting the smoothest of balls to pick out Dimitar Berbatov on the right flank. The Bulgarian checked inside, hesitated, and languidly played in Phil Jones, galloping past on the outside.
The 19-year-old is in a makeshift phase, too, of course, though his performances are so thoroughbred that it is hard to tell. He spent his evening here hugging the touchline, heading for the byline. Not bad for a converted centre-back.
Nor was his ability to readjust his body to Berbatov's heavy pass and pick out a cross – fortuitously deflected off the lunging Silviu Ilie – which Owen, always alive in front of goal, diverted past Branko Grahovac. Antonio Valencia merely had to tap home.
It is in the nature of United these days, though, that they should not be able to press home their advantage. Otelul might have drawn level immediately, Marius Pena heading wide. The hosts did not heed the warning. Rooney prompted and probed, Jones raided time and again – almost skating through, past two, three challenges, before Cristian Sarghi's head denied him at the last – but this was lacklustre stuff.
True, Anderson had an effort cleared off the line and Javier Hernandez, replacing Owen, headed over a Jones cross, but the Romanian champions grew in courage and conviction as the game wore on, encouraged by the generosity afforded them by Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. Suddenly, it was not just Rooney playing as a midfielder. Berbatov was back there too, though to rather less effect.
Better sides than Dorinel Munteanu's would have punished the Premier League champions. Ferguson, after the game, could barely conceal his relish at the prospect of the visit of Benfica in three weeks, a fixture replete with history in which victory would seal United's passage. If his defence plays like this, he may regret that enthusiasm.
At least he has Rooney. The England international deserved his decisive contribution, even if Sarghi, excellent all night, did not warrant the slice of ill fortune which saw his outstretched leg deflect a speculative attempt past the stranded Grahovac.
Rooney had the decency to look slightly ruminative, at least. He might have added an emphatic third, loitering with intent as Valencia chipped a cross to the edge of the box. He met it on the full volley. In the stands, Scholes would have recognised the pivot, the swivel of the hips. He scored a few like that, in his day. Rooney did not – the ball soaring over – but other than that, the impression was convincing, the impersonation uncanny. Ferguson might have found his new conductor, in the unlikeliest of places.
Booked: Man United Evans. Otelul Galati Costin.
Man of the match Rooney.
Referee M Strahonja (Croatia).
Results so far Basle 2-1 Otelul Galati, Benfica 1-1 Manchester United; Manchester United 3-3 Basle, Otelul Galati 0-1 Benfica; Basle 0-2 Benfica,
Otelul Galati 0-2 Manchester United; Benfica 1-1 Basle, Manchester United 2-0 Otelul Galati.
Remaining fixtures: 22 November Manchester United v Benfica, Otelul Galati v Basle. 7 December Basle v Manchester United, Benfica v Otelul Galati.
Huggel clips Eagles' wings
Manchester United moved level on points with Benfica at the top of Group C after the Portuguese side were held 1-1 at home by Basle. Spanish striker Rodrigo had given Benfica the early advantage, opening the scoring in the fourth minute with a half-volley from a Nicolas Gaitan nod-down. However, Switzerland defender Benjamin Huggel equalised midway through the second half after being set up by Scott Chipperfield.