By Oliver Platt
Sir Alex Ferguson rarely passes up an opportunity to praise Danny Welbeck, and perhaps for good reason. The 21-year-old striker, Manchester born and bred, has breathed new life into his boyhood club's star man this season.
On this day last year, Wayne Rooney scored two goals against Aston Villa to hand United a 3-1 victory at Old Trafford. Prior to that game, he had notched just four goals in all competitions, only three in the Premier League, and seemed to be suffering from a long hangover after a miserable World Cup.
Rooney bagged two again yesterday, but this time the double that proved enough to guide United past Liverpool took him past the 20-goal mark for the campaign. Fifteen of his 21 goals so far in 2011-12 have come when he has started the game alongside Welbeck, which he has done on 15 occasions.
Welbeck's energy and movement have reinvigorated Rooney, his pace pinning defences back and creating the space in which United's talisman has been able to flourish. A spell of eight games that produced just one goal – against Otelul Galati in the Champions League – represent Rooney's worst run of form this season and it is no coincidence that he kicked-off only one of those fixtures paired with his new partner in crime (they both started against Sunderland, but Rooney played in central midfield).
The two strikers are perfect for each other and when they shine, United tend to as well. In addition to Rooney playing at a goal-a-game pace in those 15 matches, Ferguson's team have won 14 times and lost just once (the 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Manchester City).
Welbeck helped Rooney into unprecedented territory on Saturday. His two-goal salvo was the first brace of his career against Liverpool – in fact, since joining United from Everton in 2004, Rooney has scored only twice against his first club's city rivals. For comparison's sake, Rooney has scored 10 times against Arsenal and eight times against Chelsea and Manchester City since completing his £25 million move as an 18-year-old.
|WAYNE ROONEY & DANNY WELBECK
|THE SEASON SO FAR...
This is a United team built to attack. They seem to have turned the corner following their comprehensive 3-0 defeat to Newcastle United at the beginning of the year, having won four of their last five Premier League matches, but in only in the easiest two of those fixtures, against Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers, have they kept a clean sheet. The also conceded in their FA Cup ties against Manchester City and Liverpool.
United's defenders of the future – the likes of Phil Jones, Rafael and Chris Smalling – are exactly that, and they will miss the presence of Nemanja Vidic during the pressure-cooker that is the final stretch of the season. Rio Ferdinand, too, is now 33 years old and looks as if his best days are behind him while Patrice Evra has not always been flawless over the past few months.
Going forward, though, they are a force to be reckoned with. They did not burst into life from the first whistle against Liverpool, and Glen Johnson enjoyed the freedom of the right flank early on, shooting narrowly wide of David de Gea's far post. After a tepid first half – at least in terms of the on-pitch action – United seemed to emerge after the break in a different mood, and Rooney's brace sent them on their way to three points.
Liverpool's shortcomings were obvious – their midfield was pedestrian at best, with Jay Spearing guilty of coughing up possession in the build-up to Rooney's second. When Craig Bellamy was brought on against United in the FA Cup at Anfield, he teamed up with Andy Carroll and Dirk Kuyt to deliver Liverpool's best period of the match, with Kuyt grabbing the winning goal. Why, of that trio, only the Dutchman started on Saturday is mystifying and thanks to virtually anonymous performances from Stewart Downing and Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez was left helplessly isolated in attack.
It is evident that the return of Welbeck from injury and Rooney to top form has come at an important time for United in the race for the title. Remarkably, considering three of their last four opponents in the Premier League have been Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, the 2-1 win against Kenny Dalglish's team lifted United to the top of the table, although pace-setters City retain a game in hand.
The 19-time English champions have 13 league matches remaining this season and only two come against the seven clubs in contention for a Champions League berth. City, on the other hand, will face Newcastle, Chelsea and Arsenal again in addition to what could be a crucial meeting with United at the Etihad Stadium at the end of April.