Never underestimate the impact Wayne Rooney can have on a football match.
United may well have already been 2-0 up against Gamba Osaka when Rooney was brought on in Japan, but the game only truly sparked into life when the England international stepped onto the pitch.
And how it sparked! Six goals – three for United, three for Gamba Osaka – in 19 minutes followed Rooney’s introduction. When the dust had settled after an incredible turn of events, the Reds had emerged 5-3 winners and booked a place in Sunday’s FIFA Club World Cup final.
Rooney’s first emotion would have been frustration, however, as Gamba Osaka immediately pulled the score back to 2-1 courtesy of striker Masato Yamakazi.
But a minute later Rooney had bagged his first, finishing well after Darren Fletcher’s long ball had sliced open the Japanese defence. It was then Fletcher’s turn to get on the scoreline, heading in Patrice Evra’s cross to complete a neat passing move.
Rooney made it 5-1 on 79 minutes after neat link-up play with Ryan Giggs before Gamba won a penalty when Gary Neville was adjudged to have handled a cross from the left wing. Dead-ball specialist Yasuhito Endo stepped forward to calmly tuck away the kick before Hideo Hashimoto scored the best goal of the game in injury time.
Those inside the Yokohama International Stadium certainly got their money’s worth. The seven goals aside, fans were treated to a full-strength United side.
Large sections of the English press had suggested the FIFA Club World Cup was an unnecessary distraction, but Sir Alex loaded his side with experience, including Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand in the starting XI. Still, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who drew the most cheers from the capacity crowd.
Ronny had United’s first shot on goal, but only after Gamba Osaka midfielder Tomokazu Myojin had tested Edwin van der Sar. Ronaldo then fizzed an effort just wide of the post before van der Sar was called into action again on 13 minutes, saving well from Ryuji Bando.
With a place in Sunday’s final against Ecuador’s LDU Quito up for grabs, you could have excused the teams had they opted for a cautious approach. But both sides, and United in particular, were happy to commit men forward and play open, attacking football.
The Reds were rewarded on 28 minutes when Nemanja Vidic rose highest to head home Ryan Giggs’ corner from close range. The Serbian out-jumped Gamba captain Satoshi Yamaguchi to power home his fourth goal of the season (surprisingly, the first with his head), just as United had begun to dominate proceedings.
It could have – and should have – been 2-0 five minutes later when Ronaldo whipped a dangerous ball across the six-yard box. Anderson, unmarked and still without a goal for the Reds since arriving at Old Trafford, failed to make clean contact with the cross when it looked easier to score.
The Japanese side, who booked their place at the Club World Cup after winning the AFC Champions League, pressed forward in search of an equaliser but struggled to make an impact in the final third. Instead, they were restricted to long-range efforts that failed to find the target.
There was nothing wrong with Ronaldo’s radar when he put United 2-0 up in first-half injury time. Again the ball came from a Giggs corner and again the Japanese side struggled to cope with the Reds’ aerial threat. This time, however, it was Myojin who was out-jumped, as Ronaldo directed a powerful header past Gamba goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya from 12 yards.
Neither manager made substitutions during the interval and little changed on the pitch when the sides emerged for the second half. United looked comfortable in possession, while the Japanese team continued to spray shots wide of the mark. Carlos Tevez had a goal ruled out for offside before Gamba playmaker Yasuhito Endo drew a fine diving save from van der Sar after Patrice Evra had given away a free-kick 25 yards from goal.
Endo curled his shot over the wall and towards the far corner, but the Reds’ goalkeeper, who agreed to sign a new contract earlier this week at the age of 38, was equal to the task, flying across goal to palm the ball out. Bando picked up the loose ball but, like so many of his team-mates before him, couldn’t hit the target.
Sir Alex then brought Wayne Rooney on in the 74th minute. There was pandemonium in the stands and, soon enough, on the pitch as well.