Rooney and fate smile on Man Utd
Wayne Rooney scored with a smile for the cameras rather than a snarl as he let his natural talent do the talking. And how eloquently it spoke as Manchester United set the platform for Champions League progress at Chelsea's expense.
The lens was Rooney's constant companion from the moment he emerged to warm up at Stamford Bridge until he departed in triumph after the goal that gave United a crucial away victory in the quarter-final first leg.
Rooney will be punished with a ban for his expletive outburst into a pitchside camera after completing his hat-trick in United's win at West Ham United on Saturday - so it was almost inevitable that fate decreed he would produce something to capture attention again at Chelsea.
The moment arrived 24 minutes into the contest when he showed touch and technique to steer in Ryan Giggs' pass. How would he react? The answer came as he smiled, slid and tumbled for the cameras before celebrating with arms outstretched in front of Chelsea fans gathered in the Matthew Harding Stand.
It was an unashamed outpouring of happiness from Rooney, giving the lie to the suggestion that the joy has somehow been sucked out of his game by a year of frustration.
Rooney put on a sparkling performance in front of the cameras. Photo: PA
The frustration and anger at Stamford Bridge was all Chelsea's.
The frustration came from Fernando Torres as he stretched his goalless sequence since his £50m move from Liverpool to 619 minutes. The anger from the whole of Chelsea when Spanish referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco refused them an obvious penalty in stoppage time when Patrice Evra brought down Ramires.
If the goal brought release to Rooney and a smile of satisfaction to Sir Alex Ferguson, it only served to underline the contrast in fortunes with struggling Torres, paired uncomfortably and to little effect with Didier Drogba by Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti.
Ancelotti's team selection appeared to be a barely disguised attempt to find any formation that allows him to field owner Roman Abramovich's record purchase, even if it disturbs Chelsea's natural balance and forces the exclusion of Nicolas Anelka.
No such problems for United and Ferguson, who got his selection and tactics spot on, revolving around the return of Rio Ferdinand in defence, a rejuvenated Michael Carrick in midfield and the tireless Rooney up front.
If it was intimidation from West Ham's fans that fired Rooney up to the point where he boiled over, he was subjected to more of the same on and off the pitch at Stamford Bridge and thrived.
Rooney was greeted by a hefty kick on the foot by Michael Essien which was swiftly followed by another foul by Ramires - all played out against the now customary background noise of pantomime booing.
The effect on Rooney was non-existent as he foraged dangerously up front alongside Javier Hernandez, dropped deep to help out in midfield and even appeared to be a constant buffer between the technical area and his team-mates, happy to receive and pass on a succession of messages.
It was a contribution that drew glowing praise from both managers as Ferguson said: "He played very well. We are pleased with his performance. It was tremendous. He played fantastically, as did all the other players."
Rooney's upturn in form can also be measured in the most important currency of all as Ferguson added: "He's now more regular in his goalscoring, which in the second half of the season is more important."
The beaten Ancelotti, whose future as Chelsea manager may hang on his ability to turn this tie around at Old Trafford next Tuesday said: "He's a fantastic player. It's not just now I am saying this, I have said it before, He played really well, scored a goal and worked hard for the team."
Rooney was not alone in his excellence. Rio Ferdinand cruised back into action for the first time since February while Michael Carrick showed glimpses of the player he was before he disappeared down a black hole of poor form following a nightmare in the 2009 Champions League final against Barcelona.
Ferguson's decision to award him a new three-year contract recently was greeted with scepticism, not only here but by a large number of Manchester United fans, but at Chelsea he at least showed welcome signs of the old qualities that have extended his stay at Old Trafford.
And in goal, the veteran Edwin van der Sar produced more evidence that he should reconsider his decision to retire at the end of the season. A model of composure, he showed an elasticity that defied his age to save brilliantly from a late Torres header while everything else stuck in those reliable hands.
Chelsea's protests at the final whistle were an outpouring for what may be another lost Champions League opportunity. There was genuine and understandable fury at that late, ignored penalty claim but also the knowledge that the latest quest to clinch the missing trophy in their collection is once again in danger of failure.
The Drogba-Torres partnership failed to produce a goal. Photo: Reuters
And at the heart of Wednesday's loss was the latest chapter in Torres's fruitless search for the form he enjoyed at Liverpool. It is not for the want of trying, but Torres cuts the figure of a man stretching out for something that remains tantalisingly out of reach - in this case his form and the old snap and acceleration that made him so coveted.
Drogba and Torres may have exchanged glances but they barely exchanged a pass. Chelsea are more suited to a 4-3-3 formation with their current personnel but Ancelotti was clearly unable to resist the temptation to play both Drogba and Torres.
And while Drogba has been the more potent this season, could it be that Ancelotti simply could not take the risk of leaving Abramovich's landmark purchase languishing on the bench for a match of such significance?
Ancelotti raised eyebrows when he finally altered his system, choosing to remove Drogba when Torres looked the more likely candidate to be substituted.
It is a dilemma that has to be resolved, whether it is by Ancelotti or someone else, and it must be assumed Torres is the future rather than Drogba given Abramovich's willingness to sign off such a huge deal.
Ancelotti must solve the same equation again next Tuesday - and if ever there was a night he needs to get the formula right, it is at Old Trafford.
Ferguson was keen to preach caution and Chelsea are not out of the fight to face Inter Milan or Schalke in the semi-final - they have too much quality to be dismissed so lightly - but United's position of strength with victory and an away goal bred confidence and optimism among their camp.
With players of influence such as Ferdinand returning to the fold, United are still in the hunt for a repeat of their historic 1999 treble of the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup.
There are signs of momentum and purpose about United that have eluded them for much of the season. The campaign remains full of rich possibilities even though Ferguson himself appears to consider this to be a squad in need of an expensive summer overhaul.
And with Rooney rediscovering his touch in front of goal, there may be even more photo opportunities before the season ends.