United provided the Old Trafford supporters with the perfect present in the last home game before Christmas, answering the critics with a 4-1 victory over Wolves that cuts the gap at the top to two points, with leaders City in action at Chelsea on Monday night.
The manager stressed football is all about how you respond to setbacks and, after the Champions League exit in midweek, this was a dominant display from start to finish. Nani scored twice for the first time in the league and Wayne Rooney ended a run of eight games without a goal with a brace. Steven Fletcher’s header at the start of the second half could have set the alarm bells ringing but the Reds moved up another gear again, in probably the most exciting performance since the win over Chelsea.
As expected, Sir Alex replaced injured skipper Nemanja Vidic with Jonny Evans while Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck also started and Michael Carrick returned following his European ban. The visitors mustered an attempt within 20 seconds as in-form Steven Fletcher lashed wide with his left foot. But it proved to be a rare raid from Mick McCarthy’s team as the champions took complete control.
Encouragingly, both wingers, Valencia and Nani, showed a willingness to take their markers on and a cross from the Ecuador international was headed just over the top by a diving Carrick. Wayne Hennessey was forced to make a couple of saves to deny Rooney, the first of which was comfortable, but the second was an excellent stop with an outstretched right leg after the Reds’ No10 latched onto a measured pass by Carrick.
Within a minute, the pressure told as Nani controlled a pass by Valencia and moved menacingly towards the centre of the field. With the crowd urging the exciting Portuguese talent to shoot, he obliged by arrowing a drive past Hennessey for the opener. The confidence flooded back into the hosts’ play as Rooney and Danny Welbeck combined superbly in attack while Phil Jones got forward regularly, forcing one saving tackle by Karl Henry after Welbeck robbed Jamie O’Hara.
A second goal was no less than United deserved with Chris Smalling, Carrick and Nani all involved in the build-up that led to Rooney’s firm strike catching Hennessey out and beating the keeper’s despairing right hand. Entertaining the fans with some enterprising play, the Reds ensured the one-way traffic continued all the way to the interval. Rooney forced a diving save out of Hennessey and Welbeck saw a shot deflect off target after being found by Nani. The final effort of the half came from the eye-catching Nani, who could only float a tame shot at Hennessey after some more magical approach work.
However, Wolves caught the Reds cold at the start of the second half to reduce the arrears. Matt Jarvis did well down the left and his deep cross was met by Fletcher, who outjumped Patrice Evra and squeezed his header between Jonny Evans on the line and the bar to make it 2-1.
After going out of two cup competitions recently and being criticised from all quarters, this was another test of the team’s mettle. The answer was emphatic as United simply piled forward with renewed vigour and soon restored a two-goal advantage. Valencia was really positive in his play when collecting a Jones pass and driving into the danger zone before firing in a cross that was touched home by the alert Nani.
Evans had a couple of openings when moving up from defence while Valencia displayed his confidence by again hurtling towards goal, only to send his finish wide. After receiving another pass from Jones, the right-winger then delivered another accurate cross and Rooney showed textbook technique to superbly volley a difficult opportunity past Hennessey.
Welbeck was unable to cap his performance with a deserved goal as he couldn’t convert a Jones cross and forced a couple of saves out of Hennessey following some more excellent teamwork. Fletcher (twice) and O’Hara worked David De Gea at the other end but United were on cruise control, breaking almost at will in a bid to extend the lead further.
Rooney’s curler was kept out by Hennessey to deny the striker a hat-trick and substitute Federico Macheda could not supply the finishing touch after a lung-busting run by Jones. At the other end, there was a moment of danger when Evans had to clear superbly after a Stephen Hunt shot struck Barclays Premier League debutant Ezekiel Fryers, and the lively Jarvis forced a decent stop out of De Gea.