LONDON — Every time something good has happened for Manchester United and David Moyes this season, a caveat or a quick crash back down to earth has seemed to accompany it.
Before you could say "it was only Olympiakos," a rousing Champions League comeback had been overshadowed by an injury to Robin van Persie and news of a quarterfinal date with Bayern Munich.
His first goal ranked up with the best of his career, and his second with the worst. However they ended up in the back of the net, the most encouraging thing was the inventiveness and confidence with which he played as the lone striker.
GOOOOOOOOAL! WHAT A GOAL FROM WAYNE ROONEY! Beckham is in the crowd, and he's just witnessed a goal that he would be proud of! Rooney spots Adrian off his line, before ballooning a ridiculous half-volley over the Spanish goalkeeper and into the roof of the net from the halfway line!
Let's allow Moyes, then, to enjoy a comfortable away victory and an excellent performance from the man we may as well now call his captain before Tuesday's derby against Manchester City is mentioned. Wayne Rooney's wonderful eighth-minute goal was the kind of moment of magic — and then some — that has been all too absent from United's performances in the last eight months.
Rooney's second goal was as fortunate as the first was spectacular, with Mark Noble drilling a clearance straight at him, but the fact United's goals were out of the ordinary should not suggest they were not fully merited. Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa and Marouane Fellaini all had chances to add to the score, but the lack of assurance that has troubled United this season perhaps crept in. All three players have had to settle in to life at Old Trafford at an unenviable time.
"The [first] goal will maybe take center stage but I thought our performance today was very good," Moyes said. "The disappointment was that we didn't score more from the good football we played. Before we scored we had really threatened and considering we were a bit makeshift defensively there was some really good football."
Moyes deserves credit for finding a way around those problems in defense in addition to the loss of Van Persie. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans all missed this game, so Michael Carrick partnered with Phil Jones at center back. Moyes astutely parked Fellaini in front of Carrick so as to ensure he was not targeted by Andy Carroll. "Michael Carrick made the center half job look very easy today," the manager reflected.
When it might have been easier to simply replace Van Persie with Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez, Moyes instead reshuffled his front four entirely, and to great effect. "It was good to see us making those opportunities because we've not been quite as free as that," he said. Mata, especially, looked liberated in a more central position, turning in his best performance of the season and discovering an immediate connection with Kagawa.
The star, though, was undoubtedly Rooney. One of his goals belongs on the increasingly impressive "best of" video — the volley against Newcastle, the overhead kick against City — that will be played when he eventually hangs up his boots. The other took him above Jack Rowley to third in the list of United's all-time top scorers.
When they froze the television cameras just before Rooney struck his 50-yarder, James Tomkins was looking at the assistant referee, hoping a foul would be called. Even Mata had glanced over. Rooney had eyes for nothing but the goal. For a player whose supposed lack of intelligence is frequently mocked, he has an astonishing ability to calculate a lot of information in a very, very short space of time.
"I think it's just instinct," he told Sky Sports. "I've turned, had a quick look and seen the goalkeeper is off his line. I've tried that many times but thankfully it's gone in."
If Mata and Rooney continue to deliver performances like these, Moyes will have some thinking to do when Van Persie returns. The front four was fluid, inventive and demonstrated that United does possess players capable of playing a flowing brand of soccer like that of Manchester City and Liverpool, rather than resorting to pumping cross after cross into the box.
There is no sense in getting carried away by a couple of good results — United had a good run in December before its season turned worse than it ever would have imagined — and there will be more disappointments between now and May. But at Upton Park, at least, the energy and excitement was back. And that's one small step in the right direction.