It is hard to imagine how the afternoon could have been made any easier for Wayne Rooney. His comeback was against Wigan, who, over the years, have acted as Manchester United's sacrificial lambs, with little jars of mint sauce tied around their necks.
They had never earned so much a point against United and, in his 11 previous games against them, Rooney had found the net nine times. Also, for most of his 34 minutes on the pitch, Wigan had nine men.
Rooney came on as a sub to a level of applause that was acceptable but no more; and the first song he heard was for the man who was brought on with him ? Paul Scholes, who is as unlikely to be photographed dining on chicken nuggets and champagne in Dubai as he is to issue a statement criticising his club's ambition. Old Trafford was quite prepared to remove the black mark against Rooney's name, but they wanted the erasure to show.
The real ovation, however, was reserved for news of Chelsea's defeat by Birmingham. Without United finding any real rhythm this season, only goal difference now separates them from Chelsea. Sir Alex Ferguson, typically, thought his men should have used that half an hour when they had two more men to erode the champions' remaining advantage.
"It will settle him down and remind him he is the right club," his manager said of Rooney's return. "It was a quiet comeback. He will start against Rangers in the Champions League. That will be the perfect game for him."
In one sense, this was the right match for Rooney to return. Before kick-off, the Tannoys announced that it was five years since the death of George Best and that members of his family had gathered here to mark the occasion.
In his biography of Sir Matt Busby, A Strange Kind of Glory, Eamon Dunphy, emphasised the difference between George and Georgie Best, the footballer and the stuff of celebrity. You could say the same of his natural successor; there is Wayne Rooney and there is Wazza.
Of all the comments directed at Rooney, Ferguson's statement delivered aptly from the absolutist state that is Qatar ? that there is nobody at Manchester United more important than the manager ? should have sunk in the deepest. Dimitar Berbatov, dropped from the even bench after his insipid display against Aston Villa, might have reflected upon it, too.
Had he been a cricketer, you would have said Rooney played himself in. The passes were usually short rather than flamboyant. Of his two chances, one was a header from a deep, superbly-judged cross from Rafael da Silva that was tipped over the bar; a shot from the edge of the six-yard area finished comfortably in Ali al-Habsi's arms.
Javier Hernández, who has taken up the slack left by Rooney's injury and rehabilitation, did not have the same rust encrusting his boots. His seventh goal of the season was created by the same sort of deep cross from Da Silva that Rooney nodded over. The young Mexican's header did not miss.
With eight outfield players left and a quarter of an hour remaining, those few who had travelled from Wigan, which technically if not spiritually is part of Greater Manchester, might have wondered "How many?" They would have been relieved by the answer.
The Wigan manager, Roberto Martínez, would not comment on the dismissals of Antolin Alcaraz and Hugo Rodallega. Alcaraz was shown a second yellow for a late scythe at Darren Fletcher while the Colombian was given a red card for a studs-up tackle on Da Silva, which will earn him a three-match ban Wigan can ill afford.
Ferguson felt the visitors had been aggressive from the start. "Wigan tested the referee throughout, no doubt about that. But we had a lot of the ball without doing anything with it. We seem to be playing our best football in the final 20 minutes. We need more quickness in our play, especially in the first half. We could have had five or six easily, but had you said: 'Would you take being joint top with Chelsea?' I would have said yes."
Manchester United, the team that traditionally flourishes when the year turns, have not lost their sense of timing and emphasised it when, in first-half stoppage time, Park Ji-Sung swung over a wonderful cross, and Patrice Evra met it to head in his first goal in three and a half years.
Evra joked that he would celebrate by buying Park a Christmas present. He suggested a car, demonstrating it is not just Rooney who lives in a Marie Antoinette world.
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICTTONY KAYE. Observer reader A dull game and a poor performance. The first half was a bit tepid and the only good things in it were the Evra goal and the half-time whistle, but everything else went for us today with the Arsenal and Chelsea results. It was the old cliche of a game of two halves, with a lot in the second half, Rooney coming on and the two sendings-off. It was a good goal by Chicharito, who looks like the one shining beacon for the future and should have played from the start. Credit to Wigan, though: they gave it a go. Martínez is a competent manager and they didn't disgrace themselves.
The fan's player ratings Van der Sar 7; R Da Silva 6, Ferdinand 6, Vidic 7, Evra 8; Nani 7, Carrick 6 (Hernández 64 8), Fletcher 7, Park 5 (Scholes 56 7); Obertan 8; Macheda 5 (Rooney 56 7)
MARK ASHURST, Observer reader We came and we had a bit of a go. It's always tricky at Old Trafford with 11 men let alone nine. The sendings-off were stupid. The first one, if it was the other way around, it would have been a booking but the second sending-off was a leg-breaker, a disgrace. Apart from that I can't complain about the performance. I would have taken losing 2-0 beforehand. Steven Caldwell, at centre-half, was outstanding, but we've got bigger fish to fry with West Ham and then Stoke: we've got to avoid defeat at Upton Park and beat Stoke at home. A point a game is round about enough. We'll be all right.
The fan's player ratings Habsi 6; Gohouri 6, S Caldwell 9, Alcaraz 5, Figueroa 6; Stam 5 (McArthur 80 n/a), Thomas 7, Diamé 7; N'Zogbia 8 (Di Santo 80 6), Gómez 5 (Moses 58 5); Rodallega 3
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