Rooney calls the shots

Man United 3 Newcastle 1 Whether it is his decision to utilise Wayne Rooney in a deep-lying midfield role or take the unusual step of granting his players Christmas Day off, rarely a day goes by in this new era at Old Trafford without Louis van Gaal looking like the perfect man to restore Manchester United to their pre-eminent position in English football.

In the latest example, Rooney scored twice and set up a third for Robin van Persie as United extended their record to seven victories and one draw in eight games.

It also continued United’s mastery of Boxing Day opposition. The last 21 fixtures the day after Christmas have now brought 18 victories and two draws, yet this one was notably different for the fact that the Dutchman broke with English football tradition and supposed best practice by allowing his players to spend Christmas day and evening, at home with their families.

The response from those players was emphatic and, aside from an opening quarter in which Newcastle threatened on the counter-attack and were unfortunate with a strong penalty appeal — when Juan Mata clearly clipped the heels of Yoan Gouffran — resulted in complete United domination.

Mata and Rooney tore swathes through the Newcastle defence who, for their part, did little to prevent an in-form and star-studded forward line from taking target practice at young goalkeeper Jak Alnwick.

“It’s a role I’ve played many times and I know I can play,” said Rooney of his midfield responsibilities. “The manager has given me even more licence to go forward and get into the box from that position, as Paul Scholes used to do here. It’s nice to win, nice to score and I’m delighted with the performance.

“There is a long way to go in the title race, we know that. We’ve chased leads down before, and lost leads as well, and there are a large number of points left. Anything can happen.”

Van Gaal was understandably impressed by his club captain’s contribution. “He has the lung capacity to run for 90 minutes as a midfielder,” he said. “So that’s why I also use him as a midfielder, but I can also use him a striker.”

Rooney and van Gaal continue with the party line that the title is within United’s grasp still but, in truth, it is difficult to see Chelsea and Manchester City suffering the required collapse.

But given the dire condition United were in when van Gaal arrived this summer, a third-placed finish and Champions League place would be a sufficient outcome for most realistic United supporters.

It will not have escaped those fans’ attention that Newcastle won at Old Trafford in the corresponding fixture last season, for the first time in 30 league fixtures, an outcome which never appeared likely this time, especially after Rooney put United in front. He broke up field, squaring for Mata who launched a pass into the area for Radamel Falcao. The Colombian forward seemed poised to shoot from a tight angle but, instead, pulled the ball back for Rooney to convert into a gaping goal.

The England forward doubled United’s lead after 36 minutes with a move again orchestrated by Mata, who waited before slipping through the perfect assist, with Rooney providing a clinical finish.

It did not take long for United to punish Newcastle further in the second half, Rooney this time the provider after being set in motion by Mata, advancing, pausing and then lifting the perfect pass for van Persie, who timed his leap and header to perfection.

Newcastle claimed a consolation five minutes from time, courtesy of Papiss Cisse’s well-struck penalty, awarded after an unnecessary trip by Phil Jones on Jack Colback.

MAN UNITED (3-1-4-2): De Gea 7; Jones 6, McNair 6, Evans 6; Carrick 7 (Fletcher 62, 6) ; Valencia 6 (Rafael 80, 6), Mata 8, Rooney 9, Young 8; van Persie 7, Falcao 7 (Wilson 65, 6). Subs (not used) Rafael, Smalling, Lindegaard, Blackett, Pereira.

NEWCASTLE (4-2-3-1): Alnwick 5; Janmaat 6, Coloccini 6, S Taylor 6, Dummett 5 (Cabella 63, 6) ; Colback 6, Anita 5; Sissoko 5, Perez 8 (Vuckic 81), Gouffran 7; Armstrong 6 (Cisse 63, 6). Subs (not used) Williamson, Riviere, Satka, Woodman.REFEREE: M Jones 5

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