Mata helps United to 2-0 win over Cardiff
(AP Photo/Jon Super)
By STEVE DOUGLAS
AP Sports Writer
MANCHESTER, England (AP) With record signing Juan Mata slotting seamlessly into the team and fit-again Robin van Persie back to scoring again, a return to the good times could be just around the corner for Manchester United.
The English champions looked more like the United of old in a 2-0 win over Cardiff on Tuesday that revived their hopes of making up the ground to the top four - and put a smile back on the face of manager David Moyes.
Three days after sealing his high-profile move from Chelsea, Mata made his debut for United and showed glimpses of his class and vision in the 84 minutes he played to underline why the club splashed out 37.1 million pounds ($61.2 million) for the Spain playmaker.
Yet he was upstaged by the returning Van Persie, who marked his first game after seven weeks out with a thigh injury by heading United in front after six minutes.
Ashley Young added the second in the 59th minute and a substitute appearance from Wayne Rooney, who has also been struggling with injury, capped a satisfying night for Moyes. And there haven't been many of them lately.
"To see Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney back on the touchline would have been enough to give everyone an uplift but then to have Juan Mata as well," Moyes said. "The results with them will get much better."
It all conspired to ruin the return to Old Trafford of Cardiff manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who played 11 years at United from 1996-2007 and has a place in the club's folklore after scoring the winning goal in the 1999 Champions League final.
Solskjaer was given a great reception from United fans, and responded by waving to all sides of Old Trafford, but his last-place team did little more than compete gamely. It was a bittersweet night for the Norwegian.
"With Rooney, van Persie, Mata (all playing), it was good timing coming to Old Trafford, wasn't it?" Solskjaer said with a smile.
The atmosphere at Old Trafford has been subdued for much of Moyes' turbulent first season in charge, but there was a real buzz inside the stadium as fans greeted first Mata then the returning Van Persie and finally Solskjaer with huge roars before kickoff.
Mata - wearing the No. 8 shirt and a pair of baggy shorts that almost covered his knees - hadn't played a single minute since storming off the pitch after being substituted by Chelsea against Southampton on Jan. 1. Yet he was thrown straight in by Moyes.
The player many United fans are seeing as the cure to the team's problems showed some neat touches and a willingness to play the ball over the top. Early on, his every touch was cheered by home supporters and he will be pleased to get almost a full match under his belt as he strives to regain full fitness.
"It was a very special day for me," Mata said. "My debut, and a victory. It was perfect."
Well, almost perfect. He didn't score - the closest he came was when he forced a decent save from goalkeeper David Marshall in the 62nd. But by that time, United was 2-0 up and cruising.
Cardiff's sluggish start had been punished by Van Persie, who nodded in from close range after Antonio Valencia's header had crashed against the bar and Van Persie's rebound effort was palmed back out to him by goalkeeper David Marshall.
The Dutchman's presence up front seemed to galvanize United as much as the appearance of Mata. He lasted 63 minutes before being replaced by Rooney.
Four minutes earlier, Young had sealed the three points by picking up a pass from Mata, cutting in from the left wing and curling a low shot into the corner from outside the area.
"Don't think because we have won tonight I have got a smile and am happy," Moyes said. "I'm happy because we have got the three points but for where I want to go and the vision I have got for how I want my team to go, I have got a long way to go."
United remained six points behind fourth-place Liverpool.
Updated January 29, 2014