Rooney steals Wembley show
Wayne Rooney's golden streak is now so unstoppable that he is winning Wembley finals for Manchester United even when he is meant to be having a day off.
Sir Alex Ferguson revealed the Carling Cup final against Aston Villa was pencilled in weeks ago as the day he would give Rooney "a break." Some break this turned out to be.
Rooney's imposed inactivity lasted precisely 41 minutes until he replaced the stricken Michael Owen. This, according to Villa boss Martin O'Neill, made the final "more exciting" - but not in a good way for his side.
The headed winner, scored 14 minutes from time after a perfect leap and a glorious looping header beyond Brad Friedel, was touched with an air of inevitability. It is just that sort of season for Rooney.
It allowed Ferguson to retain a cup for the first time in his Manchester United career, a remarkable statistic given the scale of his successes at Old Trafford.
United's greater variety made them worthy winners, leaving Ferguson free to quip that he now wants more silverware via the Premier League and Champions League because "he might be too old next season."
No-one was swallowing that, and Ferguson's celebrations on the Wembley turf after the trophy presentations presented concrete proof that the fire raging within this compulsive collector of trophies has not dimmed.
Sir Alex Ferguson has now won 32 trophies as Manchester United manager - Pic: Getty
O'Neill, in the sharpest of contrasts, looked emotionally drained by the pain of defeat and an acute sense of injustice that burned for fully 85 minutes of an entertaining final.
The Villa boss is a renowned criminologist, and he presented a cast-iron case to prove his side were a victim of a grave miscarriage of justice in the incident that saw James Milner give them an early lead from the penalty spot.
Referee Phil Dowd rightly awarded a spot-kick when Nemanja Vidic first tugged at Gabriel Agbonlahor's shirt before fouling him. It was what followed that left O'Neill struggling, understandably, to contain himself in his post-match media briefing.
Quite how Dowd worked out that Vidic's actions as United's last defender had not denied Agbonlahor a clear goalscoring opportunity, and therefore should have been punished with a red card, was mystifying.
It would have taken a large detour of logic - and indeed a large detour by Agbonlahor himself - to suggest he was not moving towards goal. In the language of law student O'Neill, this was an open and shut case.
Vidic should have gone and the fact that he did not even receive a yellow card suggests muddled thinking on behalf of the official.
"It was plain for all to see," said O'Neill with genuine incredulity. "It was inexplicable. I really don't understand it. It's a goalscoring opportunity and he was fouled in the area."
And not many could be found to argue with him.
O'Neill was desperate to stress he was not having a whinge - "this was an otherwise fine referee who got it wrong" - but he had genuine grounds for complaint as James Collins and Stewart Downing were given yellow cards while similar United fouls went unpunished in the early skirmishes.
The Villa boss was also correct when he admitted Dowd's decisions will be forgotten in a few days, and perhaps behind the complaints was the realisation that his side had just come up short.
Villa lacked nothing in effort but a familiar failing of a lack of subtlety proved to be their undoing. Once United decided to defend deeper after early struggles against the pace of Agbonlahor and Ashley Young and the excellence of Milner, Villa did not have the nous to fashion a breakthrough.
Emile Heskey remains a blunt instrument rather than the rapier thrust, and when he was joined late on by the giant, bludgeoning figure of John Carew, Rooney had already ensured the momentum of the final had switched decisively in United's favour.
As Ferguson said: "In the last 10 minutes they threw that big brigade up there. They are all six feet four. It's like the Alamo and you need a wee bit of luck." Sadly for Villa, this ploy also required a bit of luck and they did not get it.
O'Neill and his side will be back, perhaps even in just a few weeks, but sometimes you need more strings to your bow to beat a side as well-versed as United in winning on the showpiece occasion.
In recent weeks, there have been complaints that this blog spends too much time praising Rooney - but even those who do not like it must accept he is making it hard to do otherwise in this wonderful personal campaign.
He was not the only one who excelled for United under Wembley's leaden skies, but for Owen the joy of making a goalscoring contribution to winning his first major trophy since moving to Old Trafford was matched by the frustration of another injury.
Michael Owen's goal reminded Fabio Capello that he is a big occasion player - Pic: Getty
England coach Fabio Capello has been spectacularly unconvinced by Owen's claims for a place at the World Cup, but the way in which he instantly, instinctively swept home United's equaliser after a mistake by Richard Dunne showed shades of his old mastery.
And for the rest of the first half he looked sharp, eager and in the mood to at least give Capello food for thought, if not exactly presenting an undeniable case for an England recall.
Then, chasing a routine ball into the area with Dunne, he pulled up sharply with hamstring trouble. It was probably the moment his England ambitions finally died.
Yes, Capello will have been impressed with the goal - but the greater impression would have been the injury and the hardening of his opinion that Owen does not stay fit enough for long enough, or get enough game time, to warrant serious consideration.
As an unabashed Owen admirer this is a painful admission, but this is now surely the way of it.
Rooney ended the game lifting the Carling Cup, that lovely old League Cup, while Owen stood in his official club suit. It was an image that pointed to the different directions in which they are heading.
Antonio Valencia won the man-of-the-match award, fitting recognition for his increasing influence and a display that did not make it the easiest afternoon for Villa's Stephen Warnock as he attempted to press his England claims in front of Capello.
I asked Ferguson if this was another sign of Valencia's growing maturity as he tries to go some way towards filling the void left behind by Cristiano Ronaldo.
He said: "He needed that win. He knows he's at the right club and it was good for the boy because he has developed all season. He's improving all the time and they just couldn't handle him in the second half. He gave the Villa defenders a real hard time."
In the end, however, no-one could stop Rooney stealing the headlines and the glory again. If this is what he does on his day off, just imagine the havoc he will wreak when he really gets to work.