Byline: SIMON MULLOCK AT BRAMALL LANE
IT was just Paddy Kenny's luck to run into Wayne Rooney at the top of his game.
It's been a week from hell for the Sheffield United keeper, with his wife admitting that she had left him for his best friend and another so-called mate biting his eyebrow off in a curry-house brawl.
So the last thing the Republic of Ireland international needed was to come across a rampaging Rooney at his bullying, belligerent, brilliant best.
Two goals from the Manchester United genius ensured that Sir Alex Ferguson will go into next week's Old Trafford showdown with Chelsea looking down on the champions.
And although the visitors certainly deserved the victory, it was still cruel that Neil Warnock's battling Blades ended with nothing to show for their efforts. With Kenny in inspiratonal form and his team-mates producing a display moulded in their manager's image, the Premiership leaders were forced to dredge to the depths of their own character to come out on top.
Bramall Lane was rocking when Old Trafford reject Keith Gillespie headed the Blades into a 13th-minute lead - the first goal Edwin van der Sar had conceded in 459 minutes of League football.
But Rooney found a route past the outstanding Kenny, bringing his team level on the half-hour then volleying home a classic winner 15 minutes from the end.
Warnock's side may have been beaten by a far classier team, but there was never a hint that the Yorkshiremen were suffering from any inferiority complex. They had an early scare when a slip by Colin Kazim-Richards allowed Gary Neville to break clear, but Kenny produced the first of his fine saves by blocking with his legs.
It was a missed opportunity that Neville would have rued even more when the man who once used to run to the bookies to place bets for Ferguson headed the Blades ahead in the 13th minute.
Patrice Evra, who was moaning during the week that the food and weather in Manchester didn't compare with what he was used to in Monaco, must have been dreaming about chomping on a chateaubriand in Monte Carlo when he inexplicably allowed a cross from Derek Geary to float over his head. Gillespie, the Irishman who once graced the Man Utd youth team of Neville, Scholes and Beckham, ghosted in to plant the perfect header back across Van der Sar and into the far corner.
United galvanised themselves to produce a ferocious response.
Rooney thought he had levelled when he met Gary Neville's cross with a textbook header, but Kenny changed direction to pull off a stunning one-handed save.
Then Ryan Giggs was booked for protesting after referee Mark Clattenburg waved away penalty appeals sparked by an aerial challenge by Robert Kozluk which sent Louis Saha spiralling to the floor. Claude Davis then came to the home side's rescue, first nicking the ball off Giggs's toes as he bore down on goal and then bravely blocking Saha's follow-up blast.
Moments later, though, Davis hesitated fatally when Neville crossed from the right and Rooney smuggled himself in behind the centre-back to hook a close-range finish past Kenny.
Referee Clattenburg found himself once more surrounded by a posse of irrate Manchester players when he ruled that Alan Quinn's shove on Paul Scholes didn't warrant a penalty.
Again the visitors were forced to stand up and be counted as the Blades opened the second half as they had the first. But the tide gradually turned and for the final 25 minutes the Premiership leaders attacked in constant waves. …