x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Rooney takes centre stage

Important as he has been during his six seasons at Manchester United, it was a misrepresentation of his role during Cristiano Ronaldo's time at the club.

Wayne Rooney scored four goals in two legs against Milan in the Champions League.
Wayne Rooney scored four goals in two legs against Milan in the Champions League.

As a man who has put his name to no fewer than six books that were at least in part autobiographical, Sir Alex Ferguson is no stranger to rewriting history. It is a habit he refuses to shake. Recently he declared that Wayne Rooney had always been the "main man" at Old Trafford. Important as he has been during his six seasons at Manchester United, it was a misrepresentation of the Liverpudlian's role during Cristiano Ronaldo's time at the club. Now, however, the description does not just apply. It is utterly correct.

Rooney reigns unchallenged at Old Trafford, his supremacy not disputed by his teammates, his blend of the high octane and the high calibre far too potent for many opponents. It enabled United to overwhelm AC Milan in the Champions League. An aggregate score of 7-2 was comprehensive, Rooney's feat of scoring twice in each leg still more so. It is possible for the club's analysts to measure the ground he covers on self-imposed defensive duties, but the simplest gauge of his contribution now is in goals: 22 in 21 games, nine headers in his last 10 matches and a career-best total of 30 for the season. Comparisons with Ronaldo refuse to disappear: the Portuguese's barely credible tally of 42, achieved two seasons ago, is the new objective. Ferguson, aware of Rooney's competitiveness, described it as "a challenge". Darren Fletcher suggested it was within his teammate's reach. Remain fit and with the possibility of another 14 games, starting with Fulham on Sunday, it is possible.

Ferguson has attributed Roo-ney's greater return to a willingness to work on his finishing, especially his heading, after training. And yet perhaps the most pertinent words on Rooney came from the beaten camp on Wednesday night. The AC Milan manager Leonardo said: "He plays in a system that is perfect for him. United play at such speed and often on the counter-attack. That system, with Rooney, is incredible."

Until the last few months, however, Rooney made for a reluctant lone forward. His preferred role, he has stated, remains that of the second striker. It is a position that is redundant in United's current formation and one which Rooney himself has rendered unnecessary. Long an advocate of 4-4-2, Ferguson has become a convert to 4-3-3, especially in continental competitions, where keeping men behind the ball and breaking quickly is essential.

The pace with which Antonio Valencia and Nani advance on either wing is important; so too the protection they afford their full-backs. In any one-striker formation, he becomes the pivotal figure. Ferguson's recent practice has been to field his likeliest match-winner there. Ronaldo spent the majority of his United career on the flanks, but ended it as the centre-forward, flanked by Rooney and Ji-sung Park in last season's Champions League final.

The Portuguese's reluctance to track back was one reason for his move into the middle. Rooney's effectiveness in exile on the left helped facilitate it. Now he is the central figure in every respect, emulating his former teammate's European exploits. United's run to Rome last year came courtesy of Ronaldo, the scorer of vital goals against Inter Milan, Porto and Arsenal in the knockout stages. They were the actions of a player taking responsibility for determining big games. That mantle, like others, has now passed to Rooney.

Yet his is a greater burden. Ronaldo's supporting cast included Rooney and Carlos Tevez; the Englishman's is less impressive especially when, as on Wednesday night, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick are unavailable. Milan's seemed much the stronger bench. But whatever the challenge - be it Milan in Europe or Fulham at home in the league - Rooney rises to it. He is the envy of every club manager in Europe, for, while Ferguson amends history, Rooney continues to make it.

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