No one has established whether the plane flying over Manchester United's Carrington training ground last week was on a spying mission, but if it was, you can guarantee it was not uncovering information about Wayne Rooney. What more could be learned?
Only to predict the unpredictable, perhaps, which would sum up his performance in this FA Cup fourth-round tie last night. Coming on with half an hour to go, Rooney transformed a difficult contest against Portsmouth with two goals. The first was simple, the second outstanding.
Receiving the ball 30 yards out, he accelerated, drew his foot back as if he was planning to unleash thunder, and then chipped exquisitely over David James into the top corner. It was a goal worthy of winning the Cup itself and Sir Alex Ferguson will have drawn satisfaction that it was scored with only seven minutes to go. That, Arsène Wenger is alleged to believe, is deep into the time when United are supposed to wilt.
In fact, both Rooney's goals came after the 70-minute mark but to be fair to the Arsenal manager, Portsmouth did score in the closing moments, Pedro Mendes' shot deflecting off Kanu and past Tomasz Kuszczak's dive. Nevertheless, Ferguson could not resist commenting: "I thought Portsmouth were beginning to look tired when we scored." Touché, Mr Wenger.
On Rooney's second goal, he added: "It was a marvellous piece of imagination and audacity. He had a freshness about him. He lit the place up as soon as he came on. If he gets a run of goals, it'll make a big difference to this team." The big difference yesterday was in the age of Ferguson's side. Perhaps stung by Wenger's theory, he went to the opposite extreme, leaving Rooney on the bench and resting fellow youngster Cristiano Ronaldo completely. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Henrik Larsson formed a strike force with a combined age of 68. And, in case that duo flagged, the rest of the team was sprinkled with 30-somethings, namely Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.
In keeping with the theme, Portsmouth included a United old boy, too, and Andy Cole formed enough of a distraction after four minutes to allow Gary O'Neil to steal in behind the home centre-backs, a threat that was only dispelled by Tomasz Kuszczak's diving at the Pompey captain's feet. O'Neil claimed a penalty; the television evidence was not conclusive.
Nor was it damning nine minutes later when Nemanja Vidic believed he had opened the scoring with a powerful header from Ryan Giggs' corner. David James took some of the pace off the ball but it needed Pedro Mendes to clear just before the full circumference had crossed the line.
United upped the tempo and were unfortunate not to score before the interval. Glen Johnson almost ran Giggs' pass into his own net after 38 minutes and his blushes were saved only by James kicking the ball away as he lay on the ground. A minute later the Portsmouth goalkeeper made a more conventional stop, reaching to tip Michael Carrick's header over the bar.
Neville forced James to dive low to his left after the break but Cole probably should have put Pompey ahead after 54 minutes when Mendes pulled back from the right. Instead of trusting his left foot, Cole prodded with his right and the shot lacked power.
Larsson lashed a ferocious volley past James two minutes later only to have his effort disallowed incorrectly for offside, and Scholes forced a flying save from the Portsmouth goalkeeper. But Old Trafford was getting impatient and the cries for Rooney were getting louder before Ferguson introduced him.
Arsenal are quite wrong. Manchester United are perfectly capable of growing stronger and winning games in the last 20 minutes. The trick is to keep Wayne Rooney on the bench for an hour and then introduce him just when your opponents are thinking they have done enough to earn a draw.
Two goals from a rejuvenated Rooney sent United into the fifth round, the second one of his very best, and with the substitute coming close to claiming a hat-trick inside the 30 minutes he was allowed Old Trafford could forgive the mundane nature of much that had gone before.
United could have been excused for feeling the world was against them 13 minutes into the game, when a week that began with Arsenal successfully exploiting their alleged inability to last 90 minutes and included a spy plane circling suspiciously over their Carrington training ground continued with Mike Riley and his officials failing to spot that a goal had been scored.
The mystery pilot of the spotter plane having come back to earth some days ago, there was no eye in the sky to confirm what everyone in the ground suspected, that Pedro Mendes had hooked out Nemanja Vidic's powerful header from Ryan Giggs' corner from a position behind his own line. Television replays promptly showed the ball had crossed the whitewash by a good six inches, though without the benefit of the pictures the referee had no option but to accept his assistant's recommendation that all United deserved was another corner.
Doubtless another tiresome debate on the merits of technology will now take place - goalline cameras are one of the few improvements that could be easily and painlessly ushered in - though the reprieve did at least prevent Portsmouth complaining they should have had a penalty in the opening minutes when Tomasz Kuszczak came to claim the ball and caught a little of Gary O'Neil in the process.
The reserve goalkeeper was playing because Edwin van der Sar was being rested. He was on the bench along with Rooney, while Cristiano Ronaldo was enjoying a mid-season break. United could still boast Henrik Larsson and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer up front - as opposed to the visitors' rather optimistic deployment of a lonely Andy Cole - it was just finding them that was the problem.
THE SUNDAY TIMES
Spy planes over Carrington, "petty" criticism from Arsène Wenger, and now this. Sir Alex Ferguson is sometimes accused of being paranoid but yesterday there was reason to believe others have it in for him. Manchester United are into the FA Cup fifth round but the 77th-minute tap-in by Wayne Rooney that sent them on their way there should have been his side's third goal, not their first. For Portsmouth, as in baseball, it was a case of three strikes before they were going out.
Pedro Mendes's deflected late strike from Kanu's layoff after United defended a free kick poorly meant Ferguson's men were also grateful for Rooney's second goal, a gorgous lob caressed over the valiant David James from 25 yards after Rooney, with smooth control, turned on Gary Neville's pass.
But it was Rooney's first goal that made the decisive difference, finally setting United on their way after they were twice denied by poor judgment by Mike Riley and his assistants. It came from a lovely sequence of team football. Michael Carrick sent a stately pass forward to Henrik Larsson who, in tight space on the edge of the area managed to spin and nudge a perfectly weighted pass through to Ryan Giggs. Giggs squared for Rooney to score from six yards.
Rooney's contribution made him a serious contender for man of the match even though he played for only 29 minutes, having begun as a substitute. "When he came on he seemed to brighten up the place. We had a plan to rest him here and against Watford in midweek, but he was in such sparkling form it will be difficult to leave him out on Wednesday," said Ferguson.
The United manager was sufficiently satisfied with both Rooney and the result not to lambast the officials but, until Rooney struck, he must have been seething. After 12 minutes Nemanja Vidic clearly scored with a header, only for Riley and one of his assistants, Shaun Proctor-Green, to rule the ball had not crossed the goalline. In the 56th minute Larsson was the officials' victim. Timing his run expertly, the Swede broke onto a Neville pass and, demonstrating prodigious technique, swivelled to flash a volley across James and into the far corner of the net from 15 yards. Riley's other assistant, Richard West, flagged for offside when Larsson had been comfortably level with the last defender. It was no wonder that at full time, among the acclaim for Rooney, other cheers around Old Trafford were ironic.
Portsmouth, who never gained a proper share of possession despite having an extra man in midfield, could have been swept away, but the excellence of James and Sol Campbell kept them clinging to the rocks and the officials kept throwing them lifelines.
Mendes will appreciate the ancient football cliche about how luck evens itself out. It was Mendes who, two years ago at Old Trafford while playing for Tottenham, was victim of an infamous refereeing error when he lobbed Roy Carroll from 45 yards and saw a perefectly good goal ruled out when it was decided the ball had not crossed the line. Here, Mendes was beneficiery of a similar mistake. From Giggs's corner, Vidic made full, sweet contact with a header that James, diving, got a hand to but could not quite push out. The ball had dropped about a yard over the line before Mendes, on the post, hooked it clear and yet Riley, after checking with his assistant, Proctor-Green, who seemed to have a clear view of the incident, neglected to award the goal.
MORE FROM THE SUNDAY TIMES
Officials always say they prefer to stay out of the news, so for one to make the headlines is perhaps unfortunate. For it to happen to three in the same game is downright careless. A wonderful goal by Wayne Rooney was ultimately the difference between Manchester United and Portsmouth in the FA Cup fourth round but United's 2-1 victory at Old Trafford will be as much remembered for refereeing controversy as for Rooney's brilliance. Errors by Mike Riley, the referee, and his assistants saw two clearly legal United goals ruled out and last night led inevitably to renewed calls for the introduction of video technology.
United's first disallowed strike was the most contentious. The argument for using television is always most powerful when deciding whether the ball has crossed the goalline and in the 12th minute of yesterday's match a header from United's Nemanja Vidic was two feet into the net, despite Portsmouth goalkeeper David James getting his hand to it. Pedro Mendes then hooked the ball clear and, to the astonishment of more than 70,000 onlookers, Riley consulted assistant Shaun Proctor-Green before deciding it was not a goal.
In the second half Henrik Larsson, the United striker, netted with a superb volley only for Riley's other assistant, Richard West, to raised his flag for offside — again incorrectly.
THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
They sent for the cavalry when things were going wrong and out of the darkness with everything but the bugle emerged a familiar figure. Wayne Rooney changed the world for those tens of thousands of United fans who bawled his name in the cause of salvation.
An hour of desperation had elapsed in this fourth round FA Cup tie. Rooney squirmed on the bench, watching his friends firing blanks and the invaders from the South Coast surviving with mocking defiance.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who had decided to take on the opposition without the Premiership's most mercurial talent, Cristiano Ronaldo, goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, Louis Saha and the explosive Rooney, saw what was happening and whistled Rooney into action.
His goals, in the 76th and 83rd minutes were masterpieces, a carpet-slippered side-footed tap in and a chip from 20 yards that Ferguson described as "a marvellous piece of imagination and audacity."
He added: "When he came on he just brightened up the place. If he gets onto a run of goals he will make some difference to our team."
Rooney was the outrageous difference here, a muscular presence playing with the ebullience of youth and the skill of a veteran artist.
Until his introduction Portsmouth had been tenacious. They had a spell just after the interval when they abandoned their first half caution. A header from Linvoy Primus had skimmed the bar and Andy Cole had dithered when a shot might have been through United's heart.
Ferguson and his assistant, Carlos Queiroz, could be seen on the touchline in earnest conversation, perhaps realising that their golden, over-30s strike force of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Henrik Larsson was not quite firing. A forefinger beckoned Rooney.