By Jay Jaffa
As Wayne Rooney strode onto the field in place of Ryan Giggs on Saturday, expectation and hope was high. He was supposed to inspire Manchester United to the type of rousing comeback the club are so synonymous with and although he created Nani's goal, ultimately 45 minutes were too few for him to prevent a surprise home defeat to Tottenham.
He did, however, give cause for excitement, as much through his performance as his demeanour. He looked more lean than in August and moved with the sort of snap that was conspicuous in its absence in the first two games of this campaign.
The gruesome wound he suffered against Fulham may have kept him away from first-team action for a month but Rooney now looks like the player many expected to see after a gruelling pre-season. Though on the losing side on Saturday, his man of the match comeback against Newcastle in midweek suggested the time away has replenished his appetite. Gone was the lethargy and granite boots and in their place the reliable first touch and athleticism presumed of the Merseysider. Perhaps his enforced absence was a wake-up call for the 26-year-old.
Other factors may have caused Rooney to refocus in his time off; namely Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa. Two years ago Rooney was embroiled in a contract dispute that seemed to pave the way for an exit from Old Trafford, as he cited concerns over the quality of the squad. He did eventually backtrack and United have since spent considerably in the transfer market.
The latest big money arrivals have, in differing ways, had a telling impact. Van Persie's hat-trick at Southampton rescued what stood to be an embarrassing and damaging defeat while Kagawa has scored twice and delivered one of the most impressive debuts seen on these shores for many a year.
Rooney now has genuine world-class competition for his place in the United team and though it is unlikely he will struggle to get minutes for his club, former team-mate Nicky Butt agrees that this should galvanize the striker.
"When you play at a big club and you're a big player you have got to expect competition,” he told MUTV.
“Everyone expects that at this club and if you don't expect that, you shouldn't be here. No-one's got a given right to play every week. I'm sure Wayne will thrive on the competition for places and he's still one of our top players if not the top player we've got here.”
Despite their flickering brilliance, United have yet to get going. They have dropped six points from 18 – to Everton and Tottenham – and have yet to dominate any of their eight fixtures. Indeed, in a season in which reclaiming their Premier League crown is priority, there are grounds for concern.
Yet Rooney's second-half display against Spurs should invigorate the Red Devils and he has the chance against CFR Cluj on Tuesday night to reassert his position as a key figure for Sir Alex Ferguson.
You could be mistaken for thinking David Beckham had replaced Giggs at half-time on Saturday, such was the quality of the cross Rooney delivered to Nani, and the near-perfect free-kick he swung onto Brad Friedel's post was of a similar vintage. While inside the box, he came alive, pouncing on a loose ball, swivelling and striking a shot inches wide.
Ultimately Rooney's impact didn't retrieve the situation for United but that can largely be apportioned to a porous backline that has now shipped 10 goals in eight games. With injuries forcing Ferguson's hand in that particular department, it is reasonable to expect an improvement as the season wears on. And while goals have not been an area of concern – the chemistry has as Van Persie's arrival inevitably poses questions as to the most effective line-up and shape.
All of the above should eventually fall into place, as Butt explains: “Whether it's Wayne, Van Persie, Chicharito or Danny [Welbeck], whoever it's going to be, they have just got to go out there and do their best for themselves and the team and if they do that and work hard in training, everything will work out for United this year.”
Such confidence is a bi-product of working with Ferguson for 12 years and few would suggest United will not bounce back and resume their habit of winning football matches. With Rooney's return to fitness coinciding neatly with this unexpected setback – few suspected Spurs could shake a 23-year hoodoo, not least Sir Alex – expect Rooney to grasp his Champions League opportunity with both hands.
Tuesday night's trip to Romania is a fantastic opportunity for Rooney to fly the colours of his flag and net his first goal of the season. Ferguson will look at October and November and recognise the importance of fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal and Newcastle and inevitably give Rooney the minutes he needs to fine-tune his body. Should he add form to his focus, Rooney will deliver the shot in the arm United need as they hunt another trophy-laden season. First stop – ensure another Champions League group stage exit is averted.
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