The striker has problems on and off the pitch but Manchester United have the fire power to cope without him - for now.
Rooney down but certainly not out
Javier Hernandez's late winner for Manchester United at Valencia on Wednesday in the Champions League gave the headline writers an easy job.
Sir Alex Ferguson was effusive about the young Mexican - known as "Chicharito" (Little Pea) - although his opinion that the striker made finishing as easy as "shelling peas" made for some confusion among the many nationalities of the press room.
Ferguson claimed that Hernandez's chances had been limited so far because of the form of Dimitar Berbatov. And that the Bulgarian's usual strike partner was Wayne Rooney - as if Rooney were untouchable. United's players stopped to talk with journalists after the game. Federico Macheda, the substitute, who had been involved in Hernandez's goal just a minute after replacing Berbatov, was enthusiastic and said that he hoped for more chances.
Despite the attacking might of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Antonio Valencia and Rooney left behind injured in Manchester, Michael Owen, the former England and Liverpool striker, did not leave the bench. United still have plenty of attacking options for today's game at Sunderland.
Macheda added that he respected how well Berbatov was doing. Everyone praised Berbatov but kept silent about Rooney except Paddy Crerand, the former United midfielder, who views events at the club through the reddest of spectacles in his role as a pundit on the club's own television channel.
"Wayne just needs a goal," Crerand said. "The media have a go at some players who don't do particularly well. But Wayne is still only a young kid. He just needs a goal." Others inside Old Trafford wish it were that simple. Rooney has led the line magnificently since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid last year. The striker, who turns 25 later this month, scored 32 times in the first eight months of the season. He became the players' Player of the Year, but votes were cast before he twisted his ankle in the last minute of United's Champions League quarter-final first leg defeat by Bayern Munich.
Life for Rooney has not been the same since. Coming back from the injury early to play against Bayern in the second leg, he damaged his ankle again and was substituted. Despite plaudits from Lionel Messi and Kaka, Rooney was ineffectual in South Africa, part of a terrible World Cup campaign for England. Various unsatisfactory theories were advanced to explain why, such as exhaustion or tactics. At the start of September lurid revelations broke about his private life, about which he had not been discreet, according to the Manchester grapevine.
"It's as if he wanted to be found out," one regular on the Manchester nightlife scene said. "Everybody knew what was going on. It was just a question of which newspaper would prove the allegations, and when." Rooney's private life has been the focus for media attention before, but on those occasions his game remained unaffected.
Now, it is suffering. He could not wish for a better influence than his manager, a man who guided Ryan Giggs and David Beckham from an early age, when they were the focus of the British tabloid press. But as a United official conceded: "We can't control what our players do night and day."
Rooney would not be the first high-profile footballer to be caught out doing something he should not. Several in Manchester are nervous that they will be next to be exposed. But public attention always settles on those with the highest profiles.
In dropping his No 1 forward for the match at his former club Everton just after the scandal erupted, Ferguson withheld what Rooney loves doing most, playing football. He publicly supported his player and claimed that the abuse he would have received would have been too much, but privately he hopes that Rooney will see that continuing to behave as he has will have serious consequences.
No matter how important Rooney is to United, he is not bigger than the club and will not have an indefinite number of chances. Ferguson likes his players to marry young and be responsible family men (step forward, Paul Scholes). Further misdemeanours will incur heavier punishments and might mean a possible exit from Old Trafford. Rooney has matured as a person and a player under Ferguson's guidance. He is popular in the dressing room and he will be given more chances.
And even though United have other options up front and Berbatov's form means they are not as reliant on Rooney as they were last season, a return to action and goals cannot come soon enough for the young forward, his manager or United fans. It is a shame he has to overcome another injury before he can begin to put matters right. On the pitch, at least.
6pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 5
Phil Bardsley v Nani
Bardsley, the former United right-back, has been filling in at left-back for Sunderland recently. A tough-tackling defender, he may have a hard time against United’s Nani, who has improved this season and is rapidly becoming a consistent game-breaker.
Despite the attacking presence of Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan, Steve Bruce has tended to play Darren Bent, below, up front on his own for games against the bigger teams. United’s Sir Alex Ferguson may be tempted to match that 4-5-1 formation, in the absence of Wayne Rooney.
The Stadium of Light holds no fear for United – they are unbeaten there (in the league) in 13 years and have won their last three visits by a combined score of 7-1. Sunderland’s last victory against United: a 2-1 League Cup win in 2000.
Sunderland (4-5-1) Mignolet; Onuoha, Bramble, Turner, Bardsley; Elmohamady, Henderson, Cattermole, Malbranque, Riveros; Bent
Man United (Probable 4-4-2) Van der Sar; O’Shea, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Fletcher, Nani, Park; Berbatov, Hernandez
• Against the “big four” – United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – Darren Bent has eight goals in 10 games for Sunderland.
• Gary Neville will make his 600th appearance for United if selected today.