Cup clash can define Roo future
Sunday's FA Cup tie with Chelsea could offer the clearest indication as to whether Wayne Rooney can still salvage his Red Devils career.
As the finest English player of his generation, Rooney has been subject to intense scrutiny since the day he burst through at Everton, aged 16.
For more than a decade, though, so much has been said and written about the striker who grew up on the tough streets of Croxteth, but neither his ability nor his value to the team has ever been questioned.
He may have played out of position at times, particularly in the latter stages of Cristiano Ronaldo's time at Old Trafford when the Portuguese's reluctance to defend made him a liability if United were going backwards. But he was always there.
Rooney scored 34 goals in the season after Ronaldo's £80million exit for Real Madrid. He got another 35 last year and, with 195 in total, the 27-year-old stands fourth on United's all-time scoring chart, his tally exceeded only by Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Jack Rowley.
Yet last night, when Sir Alex Ferguson handed in his team sheet for the biggest match of United's season so far, Rooney was listed among the substitutes.
There were a few soothing words from Ferguson, who said he expected the former Everton man would come off the bench to score the winner, yet the brutal truth was there, in black and white, between the names of Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez.
Maybe the origins really do stem from that amazing transfer request Rooney submitted in October 2010, when he complained United were failing to sign players that matched his expectations.
That the Red Devils went on to win the title that season only compounded an accepted folly, although the row did end with Rooney pocketing a very lucrative five-year contract, which will still have two seasons to run once the current campaign reaches its conclusion.
And there lies the crux of the problem.
Two years is when United normally like to start contract negotiations, reducing the chances of players winding down their days before eventually leaving for nothing.
If Ferguson has decided Rooney is surplus to requirements, his bags will be packed and the exit door will swing open faster than the striker can say David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane or any of the other seemingly irreplaceable big names who found they were not quite as indispensable as they thought.
Worryingly for Rooney, the almost complete consensus is that Ferguson's initial team selection against Real Madrid, that included Danny Welbeck, Ryan Giggs and Nani, worked perfectly.
Even United assistant boss Mike Phelan said it.
"The decision was tactical," said Phelan.
"In that dressing room, everyone was prepared to play. Everyone was fit. Everyone was capable of playing in that game.
"Big decisions have to be made. The manager made those calls and we had the balance just right."
'Big call' was a comment that kept coming back from the United dressing room. And Ferguson will not have made it without realising what could happen now.
Having pointed out more than once the time required for Rooney to recover from injury, whilst also underlining the professionalism Robin van Persie has shown since his summer switch from Arsenal, Ferguson appeared to be hinting at an issue he feels needs to change.
The key question is, does he feel it can? Or even, does he care?
If reports of United interest in Robert Lewandowski are to be believed that further weakens Rooney's status, given the Pole is hardly a back-up front-man, and Van Persie is clearly going nowhere.
There have already been hints that Paris St Germain could be prepared to pay £40million for Rooney this summer to land a marquee signing with more longevity than Beckham, their current Englishman.
Of course, none of this may happen.
Ferguson could be absolutely genuine in his assessment that Rooney needed more time on the pitch and the striker, rather than abandoning the cause in the face of such a humiliating snub, may rally round in a manner befitting of a player with such talent.
Sunday's selection of a team to face a Chelsea outfit drained by a midweek trip to Romania may tell us much.
For if Rooney is once again nailed to the bench, it is hard to see how he can prise his way off it.
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