BEFORE Christmas I thought Didier Drogba was a shoo-in as footballer of the year.
Not so now, however well he continues to play (Drogba was the difference at Molineux), because Wayne Rooney has caught up with him on the back straight and is surging into the lead.
Rooney’s overall form is phenomenal at the moment. Even halfway across the world, I couldn’t believe how well he played at Arsenal where he wrought havoc. But, back from my break, I’ve seen him up close twice in the last week and, certainly in Milan if not quite on Merseyside, he was wonderful.
Sometimes the Man-chester United manager is guilty of going over-the-top in some of the things he says, particularly about referees. However, Alex Ferguson is entirely right to say that his ‘still young’ striker should now be considered in the same league as Kaka, Messi and Ronaldo – a potential ‘best player in the world’.
Mention of Ronaldo is especially highly relevant because, in the absence of the Portuguese and, in particular, his goals, more of United’s ‘burden’ has unquestionably fallen on Rooney’s shoulders. Yet he seems to be relishing the role and you can detect changes in his game, all for the good. Reasons to ‘criticise’ are becoming far fewer.
One of the things Ferguson always said Rooney needed to improve on was the number of goals he scored. It hardly applies now. So far, it’s 25 for the season. Amazingly, his two in Milan were his first in the 2009-2010 Champions League. Given continued fitness, it’s hard to believe he won’t reach and go beyond 40 for the campaign.
The fact that the goals at San Siro were both headers is also significant. Rooney admits to being embarrassed by his previously poor return of headed goals but he’s rapidly making up for lost ground having studied Paul Scholes’ ability to ‘spring’ as compensation for a relative lack of height. The first against AC Milan was brilliantly executed.
Generally, we’re seeing much more of Rooney in the box now too. Though his desire to be involved everywhere is unquenched, there’s far less of the foraging around the halfway line that wasted too much of his priceless energy. United, and England for that matter, need him bothering defenders in areas that hurt them.
It may just be in my imagination but I’m sure that Rooney’s got ‘quicker’. He’s been having special sessions with United’s weights trainer, Mike Clegg. Milan’s aging players simply couldn’t cope with the electrifying pace they were confronted with and it’s no wonder that the in-house Milan television station sought out Rooney for the most fawning interview after the game.
There are two other aspects that strike me about Rooney’s ‘improvement’. I sense – the penny has finally dropped – a growing maturity. Yes, he continues to attract yellow cards but he hasn’t been sent off since March and there was one incident the other night that rather summed it up. Having earlier been booked, Rooney chased after Bonera late in the game. I thought “don’t do it”: he didn’t (trip him); he harassed rather than fouled the player; successfully And he’s showing leadership, not just in terms of what he demands of himself but of what he expects from his colleagues. He and Darren Fletcher are huge pals. It didn’t stop him rollicking the Scot for a mistake in Milan.
I hear you say that he was, relatively speaking, quiet at Goodison but surely even the very best are excused the odd day ‘off’. If anything, it emphasised how important Rooney is to United. His club will hope for a resumption of the norm against West Ham tomorrow night.
Reservations? Just one: that he doesn’t burn himself out before the season ends; on this form, Rooney will be priceless for England in South Africa.
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