Manchester United 2 Charlton Athletic 0
Wayne Rooney kept his nerve when it mattered today to ease Manchester United to a unconvincing win over Charlton.
After all the swagger of recent performances, the Red Devils were forced to grind out a result against Alan Pardew’s brave battlers, who never let their heads drop even after Park Ji-Sung had nodded the hosts into a first-half lead.
Charlton came agonisingly close to breaching United’s defences on two separate occasions but eventually, Rooney eased Alex Ferguson’s nerves, calmly chipping to the far post after Scott Carson had blocked his initial shot, setting up Darren Fletcher for the easiest of finishes.
Ferguson certainly could not claim his side were anywhere near their best but it is on such triumphs championship wins are built and their advantage over Chelsea remains at six points – and now there are only 11 games to go.
Having conceded the prospect of living in a sunnier, warmer place than north-west England must hold some appeal for Cristiano Ronaldo, it was somewhat ironic Ferguson was denied the services of his brilliant young winger because of a heavy cold.
As Ronaldo warmed himself by the fire at home, his team-mates struggled, the opening period lacking any of the fluency that has characterised so many of their recent performances.
Certainly Charlton were not handicapped by any sense of inferiority. Pardew may have inherited an unenviable situation when he took over at the Valley but it is clear the Addicks will not surrender their proud Premiership status without a fight.
The visitors should have gone ahead too but, after Dennis Rommedahl had already fired one decent opportunity into the side netting, Tomasz Kuszczak plunged to his left to turn away a goalbound Darren Ambrose header.
It was an excellent save and one which belied the fact Kuszczak has spent almost all season sitting on the bench as understudy to Edwin van der Sar.
Kuszczak was to deny Ambrose once more before the first-half was through, although by then United had managed to get their noses in front.
Given his hard-man reputation Ben Thatcher will be disappointed at the way Park simply shrugged him aside as he rose to meet Patrice Evra’s deflected cross.
Once he had won the aerial duel, Park simply steered his header into the net.
The only other moment of note during an otherwise unremarkable opening period when Rooney acrobatically controlled Ryan Giggs’ long ball from almost head height, a manoeuvre that took both Thatcher and Souleymane Diawara out of the game.
Rooney needed just one more touch before letting fly with a fierce right-footed shot that skimmed the outside of a post with Carson totally beaten.
If Ferguson hoped the half-time break would help bring any more fluency to his team’s efforts he was mistaken.
United continued to labour and with Alexandre Song outstanding in Charlton’s midfield, the visitors gained greater confidence and encouragement.
With a bit more calmness, Rommedahl might have done much better than blaze over from 25-yards after finding himself in plenty of space in a central position.
Having left Henrik Larsson on the bench for the first time since his arrival from Helsingborg, Ferguson introduced the veteran Swede for Giggs just after the hour mark. Even that move failed to inspire an immediate improvement in fortunes.
In fact, it was Charlton who continued to look the more likely scorers and Marcus Bent was only millimetres away from getting a vital touch to Rommedahl’s inswinging free-kick which actually flew just wide off Gary Neville’s head.
The obvious problem for the visitors in those latter stages was the more they pressed, the more vulnerable they were on the counter-attack.
Rooney set up Louis Saha with a superb pass which ended disappointingly with a shot straight at Scott Carson.
But the pattern had been established and when Carson blocked Rooney’s shot with his legs shortly afterwards, the striker quickly seized on the loose ball and delivered a deft cross to the far post which Fletcher could not fail to head home.