MANCHESTER, England -- While Manchester United stumbles along in the Premier League, Europe is proving to be a very welcome distraction for the English champions.
United cemented top spot in Group A of the Champions League on Wednesday with a 1-0 victory over Real Sociedad, secured through the earliest goal in this season's competition.
Only 69 seconds had elapsed when Inigo Martinez clumsily booted the ball into his own net after a shot by Wayne Rooney, the match's standout player by a distance, came back off the post following the striker's mazy run past three defenders.
United couldn't grab the second goal its overall display deserved, with Antonio Valencia driving a shot against the post and Phil Jones having a header saved from point-blank range. But it still took a one-point lead in the group over Bayer Leverkusen and a big step toward qualification.
"We should have won the game by three, four or five goals," Rooney said. "But I'm happy we got the win, which was the most important (thing). We played some great stuff and defended well."
Sociedad slipped to a third straight loss and only stayed alive in the match through United's profligacy. The Spaniards did, though, hit the goal frame twice -- through Antoine Griezmann's free kick and Alberto de la Bella's mis-hit cross -- to guarantee a nervy finish at Old Trafford.
"We need to get a bit more ruthless. We have to score more," said United manager David Moyes, whose team is languishing in eight points behind Premier League leader Arsenal after eight games.
Moyes was without striker Robin van Persie because of toe and groin problems, but Rooney more than made up for the absence of the prolific Dutchman.
Sharp and full of energy, Rooney is seemingly back to his very best form. He was at the heart of all United's attacks and often at the end of them, volleying straight at goalkeeper Claudio Bravo in the 14th minute and then sending a scissor-kick over the bar soon after.
"I was going to say it was back to the old Wayne Rooney," Moyes said, purring over the England striker. "But I think it's better to say it's the new Wayne Rooney."
There was more noise than usual inside Old Trafford as United was trialing a special "singing section" in one corner of the stadium, in an unusual experiment undertaken to generate a better atmosphere at home games.
Odes to many of the club's greats -- Roy Keane, Matt Busby, George Best, Cristiano Ronaldo, among others -- were belted out one after the other on a chilly evening in northwest England. Barely a minute after kickoff, it was Rooney's name on their lips.
After dancing around three would-be tacklers, Rooney curled in a shot from the angle that struck the post and rebounded out. Under pressure from Javier Hernandez, Martinez only succeeded in planting the ball into the corner of his own net from eight yards (meters) out.
"It was a disastrous goal to concede," Sociedad coach Jagoba Arrasate said through a translator. "We never recovered from it."
United has had a tendency to surrender the initiative in games this season and it happened again here, with Sociedad finding some joy toward the end of the first half.
Haris Seferovic had a fierce long-range shot tipped over before Griezmann curled a free kick against the post three minutes before halftime. An increasingly concerned Moyes stepped out of his technical area to voice his displeasure.
Sociedad resumed control after the break, overpowering a lightweight United midfield containing a 39-year-old Ryan Giggs, who nevertheless lasted the whole game. De la Bello sounded another warning by firing a cross against the top of David de Gea's bar.
United still looked dangerous, though. Jones should have increased the lead when he headed straight at Claudio Bravo from inside the six-yard box before Valencia drove a low shot against the base of the post.
Rooney also had chances to kill the game off -- and claim a goal his performance merited -- but United had to settle for a narrow win.