James Lawton: Rooney's rededication to the pursuit of glory sets a fine standard for the season

It may well be that not all the mockery that greeted Wayne Rooney's declaration that he aspires to the levels achieved by Lionel Messi will have subsided by the time he appears at Wembley tomorrow afternoon. However, one of the more encouraging facts in a football build-up that has been rather less than overwhelming is that he plainly retains the ability to track down what is left of the derision and put it to the sword.

He certainly did it the last time he played Manchester City and then the question was not whether he could ever conjure anything of the magic of Messi, but if he retained even a fragment of the brilliance that once persuaded some hard judges that he might indeed prove to be a player of the ages.

The goal that gave United vital momentum in pursuit of their 19th title was, of course, utterly extraordinary – so much so that he firmly believes it is the best he ever scored – and it would have been so had it come from the boot of a player rejoicing in one of the peaks of his form. In fact, it was knocked in by someone on whom copious obituaries had already been written, with varying degrees of conviction.

Maybe it partly explains the adrenalin rush Rooney is apparently anticipating when he starts in the Community Shield game against City, who in his absence in the FA Cup semi-final were able to follow the promptings of their best player, Yaya Touré, and sweep towards their first trophy in 35 years.

Rooney wasn't exactly luminous against City in that hard-fought derby but when he produced the winner so majestically it was as though he may just have unlocked a door. Certainly, his play took on some of its old weight and subtlety in the run-in to the title, not least when he magnificently shaped a United comeback at Upton Park before yelling so disastrously into a touchline microphone.

The Messi statement came in the wake of Rooney's thoroughly committed performance in the shadow of football's Little Maestro in the Champions League final. Also entirely admirable were Rooney's sentiments. He didn't say that he was launching himself into some sure-fire, mano-a-mano contest with the great Argentine. No, he said that Messi had set a standard which every player was obliged to attempt to follow.

Indeed, if you took the trouble to read between the lines you might have identified not some vainglorious assertion but more than a hint of a mea culpa.

It did, after all, come after a season in which worries about Rooney's ability to resurrect some of the brilliance of his youth had been assuaged to any degree only in the final stages.

His World Cup performance created a shadow over his career which will not easily be dispelled in three years' time, assuming he remains England's far and away most gifted player. The unravelling of his private life cast question marks against his old reputation as one of the last of the street footballers, someone whose passion for the game would always be a buttress against the distractions of extreme wealth and celebrity. His heavily contrived contract dispute with Manchester United looked rather like the last word in grasping cynicism.

Worst of all, not only did Rooney play poorly for most of the season, he quite often looked resigned to the fact that something vital had left him. It was the flash of intuition, the touch of authority which separates the great players, even struggling great players, from the rest.

When you consider such realities there is surely an obligation to see Rooney's Messi statement in a wholly favourable light.

He did not suggest he was speaking of a routine ambition. He was admitting, if only by implication, a serious shortfall in his own achievement. And he was doing this from a position which a less driven individual might not have considered exactly embattled. With earnings of £20m a year, when sponsorships were added to his £200,000-a-week payslips, he still, after all the convulsions of his year, lagged behind only Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the wealth league of front-rank active players.

Tomorrow City will not be lacking challengers to Rooney's restated pursuit of glory. Sergio Aguero, Diego Maradona's son-in-law and a performer of silky touch and impressive bite, will be presenting his credentials to a new audience and Touré will no doubt be seeking to inflict the influence so powerfully exerted at the end of last season.

On Rooney's own side, Javier Hernandez will be striving as hungrily as ever for the fresh gun-belt notches that will enhance one of the fastest rising reputations in world football.

At the approach of his 26th birthday, Rooney is not without evidence that the challenge he has earmarked for himself is hardly exclusive. Yet in a way this only increases the merit of his resolve to be judged, by himself and the rest of football, only according to the highest standards.

He never said he was as good or as consistent as Messi – or that he believed that one day he would surpass him. The declaration was merely that the little man had set the standard for all footballers of exceptional talent. How comfortably Rooney continues to inhabit such company is not the least intriguing question on the way to Wembley tomorrow. It is surely to Wayne Rooney's great credit that he is the man who posed it.



Tiger still thrives beyond McIlroy's protected habitat



Tiger Woods may not have made an unanswerable statement of resurrection with a 68 in a low-scoring opening of the Bridgestone Invitational – and especially not with so much accompanying evidence that his work off the tee still owes far too much to chance and speculation.

Yet who can say it is not some kind of charge to the spirit to see him back?

Certainly, his return is timely in the wake of suspicions that it may have been a shade premature to assume Rory McIlroy is a sure-fire challenger to the Tiger's mark of 14 major triumphs, not to mention the 18 of Jack Nicklaus.

Brilliant though he is, the young Ulsterman is plainly some way from the certainties of the 21-year-old Tiger after his sensational breakthrough in the 1997 Masters. McIlroy's complaints about the British climate, his view that maybe the manicured lawns and sunshine of Florida are so much more to his taste than the wild linksland that has brought the best out of the world's great golfers, is jarring not only to the game's aficionados.

It carries more than a hint of a certain shortfall in ambition to conquer every aspect of a game for which he has been so bountifully equipped. No one ever made such a charge against the Tiger (left) until his private life was exposed so dramatically. Even now, you have to suspect some great days may lie ahead.

No doubt this is also true of Rory McIlroy but will it only be when he deems the time – and the weather – is right? If so, it has to be a serious worry.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future