Wayne Rooney returns to Everton today in sparkling form from his mid-week brilliance in Milan.
Red-hot Rooney could deliver the blues away at Everton
Once a Blue, always a Blue. Slogans displayed in FA Youth Cup matches are rarely remembered. Statements of allegiance from among the finest players of their generation tend to be, however. They will be reminded of them for as long as they play.
Five-and-a-half years have passed since Wayne Rooney traded Everton, his boyhood idols, for Manchester United. Now the crowing choruses from the champions' supporters tend to include the words "once a Blue, always a Red". A return to Goodison Park would inevitably thrust Rooney to prominence. In truth, the 24-year-old Liverpudlian has shown few gifts for anonymity since his emergence as a teenage prodigy at Everton.
Scoring a match-winning brace against AC Milan at the San Siro, however, has elevated his profile. Now there is talk of Rooney being the best player on the planet. It is quite a transformation for a man who operated, albeit outstandingly well, in the slipstream of a turbocharged teammate for the previous three seasons. Minus Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney has moved from the supporting cast to the starring role. He tops the bill now.
"He was always the main man," Sir Alex Ferguson said recently. That may be rewriting history, but there is no doubt he is now. "We probably didn't use him properly last season," the United manager added. "We probably exploited his eagerness and enthusiasm to play anywhere. But we know his strengths, we know where he's best and that's where we're using him this season." "Wayne has stepped up his game," said Everton's Mikel Arteta. "He's been in terrific form, not just in his scoring but his overall play has been unbelievable. He has been the most influential player for them and probably in the Premier League, so we need to be really careful with him."
The top scorer in the division and the front-runner for the Footballer of the Year award, Rooney is facilitating United's tactics as well as their success. Without his blend of incessant industry and clinical finishing, fielding a one-man attack would appear a defensive gambit. As it is, it allows Ferguson the security of an extra midfielder - which, in turn, has permitted Paul Scholes a renaissance - without blunting his side in front of goal.
Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov have been rendered redundant by their former partner, who is taking on their tasks as well as his own. The subject of Rooney's accomplices in attack is particularly pertinent today. A previous partner, with whom Rooney briefly combined well, is in opposition. Louis Saha may not always be a Blue, but having signed a contract extension, he will remain at Goodison Park until 2012. His rare combination of attributes - pace and aerial ability allied with the facility to finish with either foot - was a factor in Ferguson's decision to sell Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2006.
Two years later, Saha's own exit was a consequence of Ferguson's frustration at his unfortunate habit of being injured (twice in the warm-up in his final season at Old Trafford alone). Rejuvenated by David Moyes, Saha has 15 goals for the campaign. After his double to defeat Chelsea 10 days ago, much of the focus - inevitably - was on the favour he had done his former side. That could be cancelled out today.
"It's tight at the top with one point between the two of us," added Ferguson. "It's not going to be easy as Everton beat Chelsea. Playing Everton has got a significance. We played them three years ago at Goodison Park and won 4-2. That more or less sealed the league for us." He is likely to bring in Antonio Valencia for the banned Nani while Nemanja Vidic should be fit for his first appearance of 2010.
"It's welcome news," said Ferguson, who is without the suspended Rio Ferdinand. "He has trained well in the last two weeks and he's ready to come into the squad." With Tim Cahill a doubt with a calf problem and Marouane Fellaini ruled out for the season, Everton could be without two of their most formidable competitors. A younger man may be of more interest to Ferguson. Jack Rodwell, a talented teenager, appears a target for United. It is a familiar tale at Goodison Park, but Rooney's remains a remarkable journey nonetheless.
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