x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The two sides of Rooney

World Cup Wayne and United's No 10 can appear two different animals, but they are connected.

West Ham will hope to find Wayne Rooney, the Manchester United striker, in the same off-colour form he showed at the World Cup for England when they meet today.
West Ham will hope to find Wayne Rooney, the Manchester United striker, in the same off-colour form he showed at the World Cup for England when they meet today.

In the broader picture, West Ham United are only the second-most important visitors to Old Trafford this week. At the moment, that may be the main cause of encouragement for Avram Grant and his beleaguered team. A six-man Fifa delegation met Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton and Wayne Rooney on Wednesday as part of England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

However, the event may have prompted unwanted flashbacks for Rooney, Manchester United's leader on the pitch. Ferguson's job description this season seems to include exorcising the World Cup from Rooney's mind and restoring the buoyancy that produced an unstoppable momentum in midwinter. Instead, the forward had to talk about an event that was a global exercise in embarrassment. World Cup Wayne and United's No 10 can appear two different animals, but they are connected. For those who are counting - and plenty are - it is 1,081 minutes of competitive football since Rooney scored, a period of two days short of five months that straddles injury and illness, club and country. At various points, form and fitness, sharpness and self-assurance have been lacking.

United can point to reasonably encouraging displays from him in both the Community Shield and the opening Premier League game against Newcastle United when Rooney was involved in goals others finished. But a man as proud of his own scoring feats as Ferguson is aware strikers are judged by their personal return. It was the most obvious measure of Rooney's improvement last season, when he scored three of the seven unanswered goals United managed in their two meetings with West Ham. This season, his competitive campaign is barely an hour old, with a virus ruling him out of Sunday's draw against Fulham.

Nevertheless, the opening two games present a comparison between the attacks of United and Chelsea. Ferguson's forwards have one goal, neatly taken by Dimitar Berbatov against Newcastle, while Carlo Ancelotti's strikers, albeit aided by some laughably generous defending, have seven. At such an embryonic stage of the campaign, it is scarcely a reason to panic. Its significance will lie if the last fortnight proves a microcosm of the season.

Berbatov, for instance, excelled at home against Newcastle but had a lesser impact at Craven Cottage; a reputation for delivering when it matters least has not been shed yet. Javier Hernandez's pre-season suggested his recruitment was a coup for Ferguson's scouts and one league start without a goal should not be enough to change that view. But for Michael Owen to make a minimal impact, as he did against Fulham, cannot be overlooked. That Bebe, Ferguson's surprise £7.4 million (Dh34.6m) signing from Vitoria Guimaraes, did not even get a place in the reserves in midweek raised an eyebrow. Characteristically, Ferguson branded criticisms of his new recruit "vicious", saying: "Ability-wise he is excellent. He is a terrific finisher." That will not be apparent today. United are concentrating on improving Bebe's fitness, so he will not play. Nevertheless, his words are significant. Plenty of similarly defiant defences of Berbatov have been mounted in the past, but the more robust Rooney scarcely needs verbal protection and would be unlikely to ask for it.

West Ham's fragile defence, in comparison, could do with plenty. So, indeed, could a man who, two league games into his reign, already finds himself criticised. Grant revisits the scene of his first match as a manager in England, a 2-0 defeat in September 2007, and faces the opponents who bracketed his Chelsea career. As United denied the Israeli's side the Premier League title and overcame them on penalties in the Champions League final, it is an understatement to say he has unfinished business with United. sports@thenational.ae

Key Battle Wayne Rooney v Tal Ben Haim Rooney missed last week's 2-2 draw away to Fulham but will be hoping to kickstart his season against the Hammers. Ben Haim started the midweek Carling Cup win against Oxford United in place of the injured Matthew Upson but will face a much stiffer test from the England striker. Tactics Avram Grant is likely to start with a lone striker in Carlton Cole, below, as he looks to pack the midfield and strangle the time and space United's pass-master Paul Scholes is allowed on the ball to thread through those killer passes. Previous meetings A superb Carlos Tevez goal in a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in the final game of the 2006/07 season helped preserve West Ham's Premier League status but since then the east London club have failed to muster a single goal in their last four outings against the Red Devils Line-ups Man Utd (probable 4-3-3) Van der Sar; O'Shea, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Scholes, Fletcher, Giggs; Valencia, Rooney, Berbatov West Ham (probable 4-3-3) Green; Faubert, Tomkins, Ben Haim, Illunga; Noble, Parker, Barrera; Faubert, Dyer, Cole Facts ? Rooney has not scored a goal - for club or country - since March when he netted in a 2-1 defeat to Bayern Munich ? Today will be the 120th meeting between the two teams. United edge the encounter with 54 wins to West Ham's 41, with 24 draws