Sometimes a moment stands out that can define a season, an individual and a legacy. In the boiling Old Trafford cesspit on derby day, Feb. 12, 2011, a goal so sublime in its technique and execution as to befit the pantheon of the greats, was one such moment.
The backdrop to the goal is one of uncertainty and doubt. Manchester United, seemingly bereft of the "world-class" talent needed to keep up with the spending power of your Citys and Chelseas of this world, has defied all the odds to lead the Premiership table by four points coming into the last few months of the season.
Where Chelsea in particular has faltered, United had prospered, building up an impressive unbeaten run many deemed impossible. Then United lost to Wolves, bottom of the table Wolves. City, on the other hand, posted an impressive 3-0 humbling of West Brom, with United old boy Carlos Tevez hitting a hat trick. Would Saturday prove to be the passing of the guard?
The day of the game dawned bright and clear and the mutterings intensified. Dimitar Berbatov, the league's top goal scorer was on the bench as was the revelation of the season, the man they call the little pea. Starting? Wayne Rooney, the very same Wayne Rooney that in recent months has appeared the antitheses of his former, free scoring self. Five goals all season, an awful World Cup that essentially defined England’s participation—it appeared Rooney’s well-publicised misdemeanours in his private life had transcended the boundaries with the pitch.
As if to compound United’s selection woes, England captain Rio Ferdinand’s injury had forced Ferguson into handing a start to the relatively unproven Chris Smalling. Would City’s free scoring captain simply prove too much for the young defender?
After City’s early supremacy it appeared that United’s fears may be realised, but after David Silva missed a gilt-edged chance they began to gain a foothold in the match.
United then began to set the tone for the game with the masterful Ryan Giggs rolling back the years to a time that 600 appearances for the club was a mere pipe dream. On the verge of halftime they converted their control into a tangible benefit as, after Rooney won a header from a Van der Sar clearance, a masterful first-time pass from the outside of Gigg’s left boot released Nani through the centre. The Portuguese’s first touch was sublime, bringing the ball down into his stride and taking one touch before passing it beyond Joe Hart’s reach.
In the second half, though the signs were ominous, Silva and Yaya Toure began to assert City’s presence in the centre and Vidic and Smalling were forced into some last ditch defending.
Then the thunderbolt came—Edin Dzeko’s strike hit the back of teammate David Silva, completely wrong-footing Van der Sar and flying into the opposite corner of the net.
Predictably, United again set the tempo, flying out of the traps like a pack of wounded lions. Yet they didn’t create much and it appeared that the second Manchester derby of the season, like the first, would fade out into deadlock.
With just over 10 minutes to go, however, the Old Trafford gods contrived to produce the moment that may well have won United the league. Rooney, amidst the mire of what was otherwise an unspectacular display, scored a goal that will live long in the memory of all that witnessed it.
Nani’s cross from the right was too high for Rooney but he simply shifted his weight slightly and launched his right foot up and over his head, intercepting the ball's trajectory at the apex of his leap. What followed was a moment of beauty, as Rooney simply and emphatically smashed the ball into the top right-hand corner of the net leaving Joe Hart with no chance. Rooney ran to the corner and stood, arms outstretched, basking in the glory of the screaming Old Trafford faithful.
It was written from then on.
City threatened, but never looked like finding the equaliser. United won and in so doing effectively ended City’s title challenge for another season.
Asked after the match, Rooney called the goal "the best I have ever scored." If United go on to win the title, he won't have scored a more important one either.