By Peter Staunton
EVERTON SHAMBLES HIGHLIGHTS ROONEY FOLLY
Nothing positive came from Manchester United's trip to Everton - a defeat which permitted the Merseysiders a league double over them for the first time in 44 years. This was the same story as it has been all season. They enjoyed the majority of possession but were inept when it came to finding forward passes and conjuring chances. One of the chief reasons for their inability to penetrate was Wayne Rooney.
He was named as United's main striker on the afternoon but is not capable of leading the line. He does not have the discipline or intuition to play there. He never has. Danny Welbeck, for all his flaws, or Javier Hernandez would offer better alternatives to Robin van Persie when he is injured.
Moreover, the position in which Rooney fancies himself, as an off-the-shoulder playmaker in behind the main striker, suits him no better and, instead, shows him up as a one-dimensional striker who struggles when not playing in a 4-4-2. He repeatedly gave the ball away in the Everton half and often popped up to waste passes in the positions in which Juan Mata or Shinji Kagawa would thrive.
It has been another poor season for Rooney. He has scored 15 league goals. Aside from his consolation against Manchester City in September, only his double against Tottenham Hotspur in December came against a top-eight team. This is a season in which United have picked up only seven points against the rest of the top eight so Rooney's goalscoring tally stands out. It stands out as an indicator of Rooney being the main man at a mid-table team.
The odd brace against Aston Villa or blast from the halfway line against West Ham will not disguise his flaws. Those are not the moments United fans will remember. Primarily, they will remember the contract renewal. He has managed to feather his nest by virtue of a sizeable pay rise despite the turmoil which engulfs Old Trafford. It is the biggest folly in this season of follies.
Rooney may have decorated matches here and there but he has not been a leader - certainly not to the extent expected of a man earning €110 million. Neither has the 28-year-old been the man to turn to when the chips were down. Where has he been in the big matches? The manner in which he blamed Welbeck for his miss against Bayern Munich a fortnight ago hinted at his current attitude.
He remains on course to top United's all-time scoring chart and that will not sit well with many fans. Rooney seems to be going through the motions and United are tied to him, for better and for worse, for another five years. He has held the club to ransom twice to better his contract. Next up is the captaincy and an ambassadorial role. United and England fans must surely despair.
Watching Rooney in action at Euro 2004 was frightening. There was an awesome specimen. He scored four goals and threatened to win it on his own before injury struck. He was, then, a much better prospect than Cristiano Ronaldo. That individual battle of dedication and professionalism has only gone one way. Rooney can now be lumped in with Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick - key men for Sir Alex Ferguson but who are now labouring from match to match.
Roy Hodgson will too indulge Rooney in Brazil at the World Cup. He will play him at every opportunity despite the evidence borne out at every international tournament since 2006. Rooney has not got the class or the ability to lead England through a tournament just like he can't lead United when it matters. He will go to Brazil on the back of an injury, on the back of a 50-plus-game season and into the sultry heat and humidity. He will surely fail.
With Liverpool playing as well as they are - boasting Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge - Hodgson must realise that even the occasional burst of bright, inventive football can get him far at a World Cup. It is fitting that stodgy old England will go to the World Cup with the stodgiest "world class player" of them all as their leading man.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN FOR RAMSEY AND ARSENAL?
Arsene Wenger admitted on Sunday that he could have done more to prevent that injury suffered by Aaron Ramsey in the depths of winter. The Wales midfielder left the field at Upton Park on Boxing Day with a thigh injury that would keep him out of the Arsenal first-team picture for nearly four months.
In the same space of time they were knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich. There have been hammerings and humiliations along the way; away against Liverpool and Chelsea for starters. There was a sense that they were playing beneath themselves when contrasted against their early-season form.
You would be forgiven for thinking that after a bright start Arsenal reverted to their actual, true standard. There have been plenty of occasions in which Arsenal's season disintegrated in spring. But the weekend game against Hull showed the opposite. Ramsey elevates Arsenal from fourth-place hangers-on to genuine title contenders.
He is a player who can be involved at every stage of the creative process - from winning balls in midfield to scoring and all in between. He started and finished the move for their first goal. His wonderful cushioned chest pass brought the second for Lukas Podolski. He met Santi Cazorla's cross before Podolski prodded home the third. And there was more besides.
Arsenal suffer so many injuries that it is difficult to ascertain what might be their first choice front six. But if the last four months have shown anything it's that Ramsey is not merely a part of the Arsenal set-up, he is their key man. They have no chance of realising their potential without him.
The Gunners may very well have come unstuck over the course of the season even if Ramsey were in the line-up. But the misfortune for Wenger is that he will never know what might have been had he been able to count on his player of the year all year long. His absence was too much for them to bear in the end.
Arsenal are good enough to challenge for the title but only with Ramsey. Without him, they are merely also-rans.