Posted: Saturday February 12, 2011 4:24PM ; Updated: Saturday February 12, 2011 5:32PM
Peter Berlin
Peter Berlin>INSIDE SOCCER

Rooney steals show in Manchester derby; Spurs' Plan B lineup works

Story Highlights

Wayne Rooney's goal for United may be the sign he's returned to full form

Spurs fielded a backup lineup but still won against Sunderland

New manager Roy Hodgson watched from the stands as WBA blew a 3-goal lead

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Wayne Rooney
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney laps up the adulation after his astonishing goal against Man City.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Premier League:

1. And with one mighty leap our hero was free. Wayne Rooney was having a waking nightmare in the Theatre of Dreams. Alex Ferguson, the United manager, had opted to start just one striker in the Manchester derby to avoid being outnumbered in midfield. The United manager omitted his top goal-scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, and left Rooney to battle alone against City's three central defenders. For most of the afternoon it seemed that Vincent Kompany, City's Belgian centerback, could handle Rooney on his own. The striker's ball control was, once again, uncertain and his positional play tentative.

Rooney quickly grew frustrated. After Kompany pounced on another sloppy piece of control to whip the ball away, Rooney's short fuse blew. He hared after City players in a furious attempt to win back the ball. Andre Marriner, the referee, called Rooney over for a brief chat.

Rooney's one small victory in the first half came after 41 minutes. Kompany left the combat for a high clearance to Joleon Lescott. Rooney muscled Lescott off the ball and deflected it to Ryan Giggs. Giggs speared a first time pass that left Nani with only Joe Hart, the City goalie to beat. Nani, United's most dangerous player, calmly scored.

The lead lasted 25 minutes until Edin Dzeko's misdirected shot hit teammate David Silva on the backside and ballooned into the goal. Ferguson threw on Berbatov. After 78 minutes he poked the ball to Rooney on the edge of the penalty area. Rooney's touch seemed to sum up his unhappy afternoon. He tried to trap the ball with his foot but missed. The ball hit his shin, bounced up against his knee and flew away over Bebatov's head. But the ball fell to a teammate and moved quickly out to Nani. Rooney was advancing looking for a header, but the cross was high and behind him. Kompany tried to change direction and slipped. Rooney's reaction was far more poised. He checked and leapt, seeming to find time for a quick glance back over his shoulder at the goal as he spun into the air. The ball was head high when Rooney caught up with it. He smacked it back over his horizontal body, past an astonished Hart and into the net. It was a stunning goal; an appropriate winner to the first Manchester derby since the launch of the Premier League to begin with both teams in the top three.

The strike was also a reminder of Rooney's great gifts, apparently dormant this season: the instinct for goal, the flash of genius and the surprising athleticism in that bulky, battered body. If the problem has been simply a crisis of confidence, then this goal should be just the remedy.

"It's definitely the best goal I've scored," Rooney told the BBC, and it was a great goal in a big match. But it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Rooney's hyperbole also expresses the relief of a man who may just have waked himself from a long, bad dream.

2. The magic of a new manager, Part I. Their monarch had returned from exile and all was suddenly right in the kingdom of the Kop. Liverpool, so mediocre under Roy Hodgson, had won four in a row under Kenny Dalglish. The last of those was an impressive 1-0 victory at the reigning champion, Chelsea. Liverpool had zipped up to sixth in the standings. It was closing in on its rightful place in the top four and the Champions League.

When Raul Meireles put Liverpool ahead against Wigan at Anfield on Saturday, it seemed that the run was going to gain more momentum. Sometimes it runs up the white flag, sometimes it fights with impressive tenacity. Wigan does not seem to be intimidated by Anfield. It had only lost once on its three previous visits. It got a point again Saturday. Steve Gohouri looked suspiciously offside when he poked the ball in after 65 minutes, but it was not an isolated Wigan thrust. Luis Suárez, one of Liverpool's two recent signings whose price tags have breathed hope into the fans, struck the woodwork twice (once in each half). Overall, the performance and the result were little better than some of the home displays that got Hodgson booed out of Anfield. The truth is that Liverpool's squad still has too many holes in it and its natural level may well be the Champions League limbo where Hodgson left it.

3. The magic of a new manager, Part II. It hasn't taken Hodgson long to bob up again. West Bromwich Albion, leaking goals and sinking fast, last week fired Roberto Di Matteo and has since hired Hodgson. The club would be more than happy if he could instill the sort of defensive dullness the Kop so despised.

On Saturday, Hodgson was in the stands at the Hawthorns as Mike Appleton. Di Matteo's assistant, had his one game in charge against West Ham. In the first half, it looked like a change was precisely what West Brom needed. Last-placed West Ham was a shambles. Graham Dorrans, Jerome Thomas and Winston Reid, with an own goal, put the home team three up with barely 30 minutes gone. It could have been more.

Yet the second half was a different story. West Ham managed a little huffing and buffing. West Brom collapsed. Demba Ba scored two and Carlton Cole the other as the Hammers pulled back to draw 3-3. It could have been more. West Ham hit the woodwork three times.

"For the supporters it was a good game," Avram Grant, the West Ham manager told Sky television, before adding: "Not the supporters of West Brom" And not for Hodgson either.

In any normal season it would be a remarkable recovery, but after Newcastle rallied from four goals down last week, it seems rather ordinary. Like the two teams involved.

4. Redknapp's backup plan works. The Spurs team that took the field at Sunderland on Saturday evening was shorn of all the sparkle that has carried Spurs to the last 16 of the Champions League. It probably bears little resemblance to the Spurs team that will continue the adventure at AC Milan on Tuesday. The three stars of the club's season, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart, are all recovering from injury or illness and were not going to be risked at Sunderland. But Harry Redknapp, the Spurs manager, also chose to leave three likely starters in Milan -- Peter Crouch, Aaron Lennon and Wilson Palacios -- on the bench. He may swap his entire front six in three days time.

The makeshift nature of the midfield showed as Spurs were overrun in the opening 40 minutes. Yet the key elements in the first half were bright yellow boots -- two, or maybe three pairs of them. William Gallas came out for the warmup wearing one pair of, eye-catching boots. He wasn't happy and changed them just before kick off. After 10 minutes, Gallas wandered to the touchline to change footwear again. While he was off, Asamoah Gyan, spun and smashed another flashy goal to give Sunderland the lead. But Sunderland had thrown away 17 points this season from winning positions, while Spurs had salvaged 17 after trailing.

Last week, Sunderland led twice at Stoke, but lost 3-2,. All three Stoke goals came from high balls into the penalty area. After 40 minutes, Sunderland left Michael Dawson unmarked at a corner. The center back's header was dropping straight to Craig Gordon, the goalie, when Gallas danced across in front of him. Maybe Gallas touched the ball. Maybe the dazzling boots blinded Gordon. Either way, he let the ball bounce between his legs.

Sunderland was deflated. Spurs were reinvigorated. They dominated the second half. Gallas nearly scored after another corner. For the second straight week, Niko Kranjcar won the game for Spurs with sweetly struck shot from the edge of the penalty area. Because of Bale's form, it was only the Croatian's third start of the season, but it earned Spurs a third straight one-goal victory. That lifted them above Chelsea, which plays Monday, and into fourth. It also left them just two points behind Manchester City with a game, away to Blackpool, in hand.

5. One week at a time. A week ago Wolves ended Manchester United's season-long unbeaten run, while Arsenal blew a four-goal lead and drew at Newcastle. There was no carry-over on Saturday. Arsenal flicked Wolves aside, 2-0. Robin van Persie scored twice, to take his total to eight goals in five games in his latest comeback from injury

"There was a murder going on," Mick McCarthy, the Wolves manager told the BBC. "We were spanked all over the field."

The Gunners lost no more ground to United while opening a four-point lead on third-place City. Wolves slipped back into last place as five of the other six teams in the bottom seven drew and the seventh, Birmingham, beat Stoke, 1-0.

McCarthy wasn't interested in answering when asked to compare his team's two most recent performances.

"We've got West Brom next week that's far more important in my view,'' he said.

Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.

 
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