LONDON: Wayne Rooney’s time at Old Trafford may be drawing to a close. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson did not trust him to start against Real Madrid on Tuesday night in the Champions League and that vote of no confidence will not have gone down well with the England striker.
Already Rooney has seen his status as United’s star striker usurped by Robin Van Persie since the Dutchman’s arrival from Arsenal last summer.
Outwardly Rooney insisted he was happier than ever at being asked to drop deeper into areas of the pitch where he could find greater space in which to work. But it may just have dawned on him that he was being ordered to adjust his game to serve the needs of the newcomer and that, given the fragile nature of many footballer’s egos, will not necessarily have gone down to well.
When United snatched the teenage ‘boy wonder’ away from Everton it seemed the sky was the limit. Sven-Goran Eriksson, England manager at the time, has always averred that Rooney was the most talented young player he had ever worked with.
“He can pass, he can shoot, he can head the ball, he works, he has vision,” said Eriksson. “Really, he has everything.”
But, as the seasons have progressed, so it has become clear that Rooney also his limits. He is not a great goalscorer in the manner of a Messi or even old team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo who, ironically, applied the coup de grace to United on Tuesday.
Ronaldo, over the past two seasons, has justified fully the world record £80m fee which Madrid expended to prise him away from Old Trafford. The truth, perhaps an unpalatable one for Rooney and his entourage, is that he would not attract a fee to compare with the Ronaldo investment.
Is that the heart of the matter for Ferguson? United’s manager stormed away from Old Trafford on Tuesday, snubbing the post-match press conference, a regulatory offence which may earn him a slap on the wrist from UEFA.
Not thatFergusonwill worry. His greatest rage will be directed at Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir for what he considered the injust, game-turning expulsion of Portugal winger Nani for a reckless kick which caught Alvaro Arbeloa.
Madrid exploited the one-man advantage ruthlessly to convert a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win on the night for 3-2 on aggregate. Thus, to compound the pain of what he perceived as injustice, Ferguson has seen his last chance of taking his team out for a Champions League Final at Wembley vanish.
Wembley will have hosted European club football’s prize event twice in three seasons; it will not be back again during Ferguson’s managerial reign – even allowing for the 71-year-old’s apparent defiance of the normal rules of age.
In the meantime, he will maintain the change-and-rule strategy which has brought him so much success. Ferguson is a master of team renewal and has never hesitated to expel players who have served their purpose for him. Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and David Beckham are just four of the apparently irreplaceable superstars who found, suddenly and to their own surprise, that they were indeed replaceable.
Rooney may just have joined that club. As his wife Coleen wrote on Twitter: “Can’t believe @WayneRooney isn’t starting.”
Former captain Keane agreed. Noting, before the game, that United’s notified line-up lacked Rooney, Keane said: “Maybe the writing is on the wall for him. We have to trust the manager a bit tonight but, in terms of the way Wayne carried on in the last year of his [previous] contract, maybe he has decided to go about getting Robin van Persie up and running.”
Ferguson did not put it that way before the game when asked about his preference of Danny Welbeck over Rooney. He told a television interviewer: “Wayne Rooney needs a game or two [after his recent injury]. He did well in the second half against Norwich, but he looked like he needed a game.
“It is one of these situations where we regard the qualities of Real Madrid with Xabi Alonso as controller of the team. Young Shinji Kagawa found it hard to do that defensive job in the first leg. Danny Welbeck is the best in our team at that, and that is the reason I have selected him.”
But the manager’s decision that Rooney was not required to start United’s biggest game not only of the season but since the 2011 Champions League final seemed to indicate more than a decision for the sake of just one game.
True, Rooney had not scored a home Champions League goal for three years and had been dropped back at the start of the season after playing just one game but he had played superbly last weekend in a 4-0 win over Norwich.
On Tuesday night Rooney was brought on 17 minutes from time but, given the chance to prove Ferguson wrong, he missed his cue. One great, late chance fell Rooney’s way but he hooked the ball over the bar.
Rooney, in an interview in the match programme for Tuesday’s game, had been asked what super power he might like to possess. His answer: “To be able to predict the future,” was an intriguing one. If he were to look into the future now, his home stadium may well not be Old Trafford.
Next summer Rooney’s contract will have two years to run, a teasing moment for everyone. If he is to be reduced to the status of a ‘mere’ squad player then the club will not want to go on paying a 27-year-old at the rate of £250,000 a week.
Rooney is not a Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs.
Three years ago, on the occasion of his brief falling-out with United and Ferguson, Rooney knew Manchester City would have paid a mountainous sum for his services.
Suddenly Rooney is at a crossroads. He has scored 196 goals in 393 games in all competitions in nine years for United and he need never, ever worry about money or work again.
But Rooney is a committed football warrior. He thrills to the bugle’s call. Whether his future battles will be at Old Trafford or elsewhere will now become the subject of speculation ever time he steps out . . . whether to start a game or as a substitute.
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