Pitchside

Rooney, Mata and Kagawa flourish in RVP’s absence

Pitchside

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Bayern Munich’s expected passage into the Champions League semi-finals looked even more of a formality when news broke that Robin van Persie would miss at least four weeks with a sprained knee.

The optimism surrounding Manchester United’s impressive comeback against Olympiacos quickly evolved into fear of humiliation as they contemplated two legs without the fruitful Dutchman.

And yet, in his absence, United oozed class as they glided past West Ham with ease. It wasn’t just that the players coincidentally upped their game following Van Persie’s injury; their improvement was, somewhat bizarrely, sparked by that very injury.

Wayne Rooney was deployed as an out-an-out striker with Juan Mata tucked in behind. Forgotten soul Shinji Kagawa was unexpectedly recalled to the side. And it worked immediately.

United could have already had a two-goal lead when Rooney gave James Tomkins a gentle nudge, allowed the ball to drop over his shoulder and rifled an outrageous half-volley which left Hammers goalkeeper Adrian flailing around in futile desperation.

[Rooney miracle just one of Saturday’s three goal-of-season contenders]

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Van Persie has been criticised in recent weeks for perceived pedestrian movement in attack – the obvious retort being that the service from an abject midfield failed to merit such runs – but the same could not be said of Rooney who continuously ensured the opposition backline felt awkward.

Handed the armband by Moyes, Rooney led by example and put in a performance that lifted the rest of the team. Chances are had he been playing off a frontman, he would not have been on the last defender to attempt such an outrageous strike, one which served as a reminder of his unique quality when on-song.

Rooney is often a frustrating character as he flitters between hot streaks and anonymity, but the opportunity to be United’s attacking focal point over the next month – potentially as skipper – can propel him back into the debate over who is the Premier League’s finest player.

But it wasn’t just the advancement of Rooney that will have excited David Moyes. The contributions of Mata and Kagawa were equally telling.

The Spaniard’s involvement prior to the West Ham game could be summed up as a couple of basic assists and an array of neat touches. In his favoured number 10 role, however, he confidently buzzed around the pitch and sparked a string of dangerous attacks.

Patrolling the touchline, with one eye on an opposition winger threatening to dart forward, was never part of Mata’s footballing makeup. He came alive when pushed infield with his team-mates keen to entrust him with the ball – although before we hail Moyes for this decision, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of United fans had demanded this move from day one.

Kagawa, too, was a revelation. On the few occasions he has played this season, his performances have not merited a repeat inclusion – partly down to being played out of position, partly down to a lack of self-belief. But against the Hammers he floated in from out wide and linked up smartly with Rooney and Mata.

With Mata unavailable for Champions League duty, the Japanese attacking midfielder presents Moyes with an alternate option in United’s bid to dethrone Bayern and his understanding of German football gained with Borussia Dortmund could prove pivotal in the manager's thinking.

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Perhaps the most pleasing aspect from a United perspective was the solidity throughout the team. They were fortunate to keep a clean sheet against a mediocre Olympiacos outfit, but at Upton Park the spine of their team was resolute and composed.

Makeshift defensive partners Phil Jones and Michael Carrick impressively marshalled Andy Carroll, and later Carlton Cole, and restricted the Hammers to a few half-chances from set-plays.

The tireless midfield work from Darren Fletcher and Marouane Fellaini, who put in one of his best performances in a United shirt, forced West Ham to attack down the flanks and the resulting crosses were comfortably dealt with by a combination of the aforementioned defenders and the reliable David De Gea.

Who would have thought it… United a better side without the man who fired them to the title last season and bagged a crucial hat-trick against the Greeks just days ago. And yet, if Saturday evening is anything to go by, David Moyes may have inadvertently stumbled across a winning formula that does not include Van Persie.

It’s only one match, but even games against the likes of West Ham have been an ordeal for United this season. The three points were important, but it was the manner of the victory that was most striking. Sam Allardyce rarely sees his sides turned over – his team rank joint second in the clean sheets department this campaign – and in 2012/13 held Sir Alex's United to a 2-2 draw in the corresponding fixture.

Now attention turns to the derby.

A mere week after the Liverpool debacle, it seemed impossible for United to head into the big Manchester clash with anything but misguided hope. And yet a couple of promising displays, admittedly against weaker opposition than they’ll face Tuesday night, has put them in the ideal frame of mind to damage their rivals’ title bid.

A positive result against City and United can start dreaming about a famous upset in Europe. And why shouldn’t they? After all, this set of players won the title last season and would have dispatched of Real Madrid in the Champions League had Nani not been wrongly dismissed for controlling the ball.

Suddenly it’s not looking quite as bleak at Old Trafford. And if they can build belief between now and Bayern round one, they may yet spring the biggest surprise of the season.

The last time they met German opposition? Bayer Leverkusen 0-5 Manchester United, with Kagawa playing off Rooney. It's on.

Ben Snowball - On Twitter: @BenSnowball

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