In his programme address to the Old Trafford faithful before this match Sir Alex Ferguson told Old Trafford fans "don´t worry", the recent run of 1-0 wins "doesn´t represent a change of tactics".
There are clubs where winning 1-0 every week would be greeted with rapture but Ferguson is acutely aware that United are not among them. They are expected to win, and to do so with style, and he has spent two decades trying to satisfy that wish. The last time a spot of tactical tinkering led to the goals drying up the disgruntlement among the supporters was voluble, even if they preferred to blame Ferguson´s assistant, Carlos Quieroz, rather than the Godfather himself.
Yet no one was complaining too loudly last night after another 1-0 win, against a team famously beaten 7-1 five months ago, gave United a firm grip on Group F of the Champions League. The Premier League champions had not played well and hardly deserved victory, but, thanks to Wayne Rooney´s superbly taken 70th-minute goal, they gained a second win in as many group matches.
Roma and United´s previous victims, Sporting Lisbon, are three points behind them and Dynamo Kiev, against whom United now play back-to-back fixtures beginning in the Ukraine on 22 October, are pointless after losing at home to Sporting last night. As Ferguson pointed out, in his pre-match spiel, "It´s points that matter at this stage in Europe. I would cheerfully settle for another 1-0 win!"
Afterwards he said of United´s sixth 1-0 win in eight matches [the other results being the 2-0 defeat of Chelsea and the Carling Cup loss to Coventry]: "It´s a disease, I´m trying to get a vaccine for it." He added: "It´s not a concern. The goals will come."
One has come, at last, for Rooney. He had not previously scored in a season interrupted by his latest metatarsal injury. It did not show as he turned on to a clever pass from Nani to drill a shot past Gianluca Curci and in off the far post.
"It will do him good," said Ferguson. "Goals always do players good. He is expected to score but this is only his fifth match and he is still trying to get his rhythm and real match fitness."
Rooney had started playing off Louis Saha, with Carlos Tevez dropped to the bench. The move made sense given United´s lack of impact in penalty areas this season, but tactical plans do not take into account human nature. Saha was largely anonymous and had to be replaced by Tevez. That pushed Rooney back up front, and he promptly scored.
Unexpectedly joining Tevez on the bench was Ryan Giggs. With Wes Brown failing a fitness test United began with only five of the XI that started the 7–1 win: John O´Shea, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Perhaps more pertinently only four of the shell-shocked Roma team returned: Francesco Totti, Philippe Mexes, Daniele De Rossi and Mancini.
One Roma player who had not been present in April, but was delighted to get onto the turf last night, was Simone Perrotta. The Italian international was born eight miles away in Ashton-under-Lyne and attended school in Cheshire before his family moved to Italy when he was five. He made it to the bench when Juventus played here in 1999, but did not get on, and was suspended when Roma were drubbed last season. However, he will remember last night for the wrong reasons missing a late chance to snatch a draw.
In the April massacre Roma were three-down after 19 minutes. It was soon apparent that they did not intend to allow a repeat, taking the game to United with Totti twice testing Tomasz Kuszczak. Their bold approach was illustrated when United won a corner. Luciano Spalletti left three up, forcing United to defend with four and leaving them light on numbers attacking the set-play. United hardly troubled the Italians until Curci, a late replacement in goal for Doni, who felt ill during the warm-up, misjudged Patrice Evra´s deep 26th-minute cross, just palming the ball away as it threatened to drop over him and into the net.
Though United improved clear-cut opportunities remained rare, the best falling to Rooney after 33 minutes. Nani´s deep cross eluded everyone except the England striker, but he thrashed an ambitious volley into the crowd.
Roma created the better chances of a similarly tight second period with Totti and Alberto Aquilani going close. For United Nani drifted a cross-shot from an acute angle on to the bar. Finally Rooney, having drawn a save at the near post from Curci, broke the deadlock following a swift interchange between Ronaldo, Carrick and Nani.
"A fabulous goal," said Ferguson. "Great movement and good passing."
Roma pressed for an equaliser but a superb tackle by Rio Ferdinand denied Perotta, who then mis-kicked in front of goal after being presented with the ball following a bout of pin-ball in the United area. With four minutes left the impressive Totti befuddled Ferdinand and Mauro Esposito was given a clear shot at goal. As the crowd held their collective breath, he pulled it wide.
United had to play the closing minutes with 10 men after Ronaldo suffered a cut eyebrow, the victim of a stray elbow. They held on and already have a foot in the knockout stages. "Ten points will get us through, and we have six," said Ferguson.
Cristiano Ronaldo suffered a cut eyebrow
The United manager´s wish for the final match, in Rome, to be irrelevant looks like being granted. He will recognise, however, that his team will have to play much better if they are to make serious progress in this competition.