The result leaves United top of Group B and as favourites to reach the knock-out stages; but there was a time when manager Louis van Gaal — already under intense pressure following criticism of his negative tactics — must have had his his heart in his mouth.
The Stretford End looked to be losing patience with the Dutchman as fans booed his decision to take off striker Anthony Martial in the second-half – and bellowed out ‘We’re Man United, we want to to attack’ to leave him in no doubt how they felt about a record of only one goal in five games.
It had been the same at half-time with chants of “Attack, attack, attack” continuing even as the home players headed down the tunnel.
Then, as his team continued to miss chances after the break, it seemed United — and van Gaal — were on a knife-edge.
Finally, however, Rooney made the difference — flinging himself towards an excellent volleyed cross from the hugely-impressive Jesse Lingard and heading home a goal that will now give his manager more breathing space.
It was ironic that United’s number 10 should be the hero, because the game began with yet another stinging criticism of van Gaal’s handling of the striker from United legend Paul Scholes, now an acerbic critic for BT Sport.
“I want United to blast teams away and be creative. I want to see that but it’s not happened,” said Scholes. “Rooney is getting all the stick but any striker would struggle to score in that team. Sergio Aguero would struggle”
Louis Van Gaal is something else 😂.. pic.twitter.com/lVBSuReUHw— Football Tips (@Football_TipsFc) November 3, 2015
In fairness to Van Gaal it looks like he is starting to take notice, despite his bitter response to Scholes’ persistent attacks. The formation against CSKA was almost 4-4-2, with Rooney joining Martial up front and full-backs Young and Rojo bombing forward like the good old days.
Afterwards Van Gaal was buoyant: “It is unbelievable because we have created at least 12 chances and had to wait a long time. Before that they could have scored and then it is a different match. I am happy. We played well.”
There was no Aguero at Old Trafford to test Scholes’ theory, of course, but those who did pull on the shirt didn’t quite make the most of the service provided. Rooney sent an early chance skidding wide when well-placed in the opening minutes, for instance, and although United created plenty of chances, the finishing didn’t match their approach play.
Lingard, chosen ahead of big-money signing Memphis Depay, enjoyed an impressive game, however, and was always a threat running at defenders; but even he was culpable when just failing to reach a Rooney through-ball before Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev raced out to deny him.
Full-back Rojo also wasted two gilt-edged opportunities. The first came as he somehow blasted metres wide at the far post from a deep Young cross and the second arrived minutes into the second-half when he wriggled free at a corner but headed wide of goal with his marker nowhere to be seen.
At times in the second half it was almost comical the way United spurned chances; not least when Rooney somehow miss-kicked five yards out in the 71st minute. By that time van Gaal had hauled off Martial and replaced him with the more industrial Marouane Fellaini; a decision greeted with a wall of boos from an Old Trafford crowd.
It could have been worse, too. If Rooney eventually saved Van Gaal’s blushes with his late winner, the Dutchman also owes defender Chris Smalling a huge debt; because in a rare break after 78 minutes CSKA almost snatched victory. It was Doumbia who went screaming through, and although he was halted by De Gea he looked certain to fire home the rebound. Then, from nowhere, came Smalling — hurling himself full-length onto the goal line to block his effort.
It was a saving tackle worth every bit as much as a goal — or at least that’s how it felt until Rooney finally reminded Old Trafford what it felt like to see one. Van Gaal, it seems, is off the hook for now — and if his side beat PSV here in three weeks time they will be through in the Champions League. But with West Brom, Watford, Leicester, West Ham, Bournemouth and Norwich next up in the Premier League — the kind of teams United have made a habit of hitting for six in years gone by — the revolt may only be on hold unless he remembers to attack.
De Gea 6: Rojo 7, Smalling 6, Blind 6, Young 6; Schweinsteiger 5 (Herrera 89), Carrick 6; Martial 6 (Fellaini 66; 6), Mata 6 (Depay 73; 5), Lingard 8, Rooney 7. Subs not used: Romero, Jones,, Darmian, Pereira.
Akinfeev 7; Fernandes 6, Berezuittski 7, Ignashevich 7, Schennikov 7; Wernbloom 6, Natcho 5 (Doumbia 55); Tosic 6 (Golovin 75; 6), Dzagoev 7 (Panchenko 85), Milanov 6; Musa 7. Subs not used: Chepchugov, Vasin, Nababkin.