ALEX FERGUSON has tipped Wayne Rooney to gatecrash theelite trio currently monopolising world football.
Rooney is set to make his 50th European appearance tonight when Manchester United entertain German champions Wolfsburg.
The first three goals came in a dramatic debut-night hat-trick against Fenerbahçe at exactly the same point in the Champions League, heralding his £27million arrival from Everton.
Although there have been moments Rooney has cause to regret, not least his red card for sarcastically applauding referee Kim Milton Nielsen in Villarreal, at no point has the 23-year-old given Ferguson any other belief than he is destined for the top.
The United boss feels Rooney has some work to do before he can be put into the same bracket as Kaka and Ronaldo, who were crowned world player of the year in the last two seasons, and Lionel Messi, who is set to receive the honour this autumn.
But he has no doubts the Merseysider will get there eventually.
“Wayne could easily get to that level,” said Ferguson. “It was a pretty remarkable feat to get that hat-trick and his progress has never disappointed us at any point since.
“When we signed him as a kid, we thought he would become a really top player. Without question he is going in that direction.
“He is blessed with some ingredients only great footballers have. He has a great determination and hunger to win every match and every training session. That will never change.
“Sometimes there is criticism about the amounts footballers get paid. But when you see the effort he puts in, he is worth every penny.”
Jonny Evans was able to verify that assessment of Rooney’s competitive spirit. Less sure is the Northern Ireland international about his team-mate’s ability to fill a central defensive role.
“Wayne is a nightmare,” he said. “He is always complaining and he always wants to win. His form has been great this season. He is playing through the middle now and is probably in his most favourite position. I don’t think he can play centre-half though. All the lads try different positions. Berbatov did it yesterday. He was awful.”
Unwittingly, Evans got both himself and his girlfriend drawn into a debate Fabio Capello triggered about Rooney a couple of weeks ago. The England coach claimed marriage has been a benefit to Rooney, something that would be manna from heaven for Ferguson, who has always espoused the settling effects having a wife can have.
Currently single Evans — and his girlfriend, who was part of the press conference having just begun a week’s work placement with host broadcaster ITV — listened intently, until the focus changed and had the young defender squirming.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “My girlfriend is sat there in the middle of you all.”
Ferguson though was warming to his theme. “Marriage helps footballers,” said the Scot.
“It is good for the stability of a footballer to get married. They settle down. You know where they are.”
Then, isolating his target: “Get him tied down dear. Rings are cheap now.”
Evans was glad when the subject changed, with Ferguson confirming Park Ji-sung had been ruled out after picking up a virus.
Not that the South Korean’s absence should cause United much trouble.
Wolfsburg are expected to be the Red Devils’ main challengers for group supremacy, with strikers Grafite and Edin Dzeko a particular threat given the Germans’ free-scoring ways.
Any foe from the Bundesliga needs to be respected. But in the end, Ferguson expects United to form part of another strong English challenge.
“Real Madrid’s signings in the summer have created a bit of a flutter in Spain,” he said.
“But I see no reason why the English clubs will not be there again.”
United team (from): Foster, Kuszczak, Neville, O’Shea, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evans, Evra, Fabio, Valencia, Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher, Gibson, Giggs, Nani, Rooney, Berbatov, Owen, Scholes.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved