Rooney gives champions United a winning start

Wayne Rooney wheels away in celebration after breaking the deadlock against Birmingham.
Wayne Rooney showed his determination to fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo as Manchester United began their English Premier League title defense with a 1-0 victory at home to promoted Birmingham on Sunday.

The England striker netted the only goal in the 34th minute — his 99th for the club — after starting up front in a more central role than last season along with Dimitar Berbatov. Rooney combined with the Bulgarian to set up Nani on the left, and rose above Franck Queudrue to head the subsequent cross against goalkeeper Joe Hart’s post before stabbing in the rebound. United dominated the match against a side who returned to the top flight just one season after relegation and showed that they will battle all the way to retain their status. However, the guile and penetration of Real Madrid’s world-record signing Ronaldo was noticeably lacking. United were also missing England defender Rio Ferdinand, who was forced to pull out with a thigh injury and is expected to be sidelined for two weeks. United boss Alex Ferguson gave surprise summer capture Michael Owen his league debut, with the former England striker unable to make much impact after replacing Berbatov in the 74th minute. Birmingham manager Alex McLeish gave club-record signing Christian Benitez his first taste of action in England at the same time, and the Ecuador forward forced a fine save from Ben Foster after beating the offside trap.

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Foster, deputizing for the injured Edwin van der Sar, was a lot more solid in United’s goal following his much-maligned performance in the Community Shield defeat by Chelsea last weekend. But he was almost beaten soon after Rooney’s goal when fullback Patrice Evra made a spectacular clearance off the goal-line when Gregory Vignal powerfully met a corner at the near post. Evra was then in action at the other end, but Darren Fletcher wastefully sidefooted wide from the Frenchman’s well-judged cutback in the last action of the first half. Ferguson brought on veteran Ryan Giggs for Nani after the interval, with the Portuguese having gone down heavily in the first spell. Giggs went close to doubling the lead when his free-kick was deflected over the bar by Cameron Jerome in Birmingham’s defensive wall after Vignal fouled Rooney in a dangerous position. Berbatov, who seemed to wake up when he saw Owen warming up on the touchline, had a header cleared off the line by Lee Carsley before both players were replaced. McLeish was left holding his head in his hands as Foster denied Benitez a sensational debut goal. Owen had a great chance to open his United account in injury-time after being set free by former England partner Rooney, but the ex-Newcastle player was denied by the legs of on-loan Manchester City keeper Hart. “Owen made a great run and the keeper made a great save. But he will get his goals, no question about that,” Ferguson said. “I started with Rooney and Berbatov today quite simply because they were at the club last season and were regular players and you’ve got to give them an opportunity. “Michael will get his chances. There is no question about that. There are plenty of games coming up in the next few weeks to give him his opportunity and he will take them. “We had some good opportunities and played some good football, and in general I am satisfied with the result.”