Football: Highbury beware: Arsenal bring best out of Rooney, the matchwinning young gun

IN THE sour aftermath of Arsenal's emotional recapture of the Premiership title at Old Trafford three years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson retorted that Manchester United were still the best side in the country. "Well," Arsene Wenger replied, "everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home."

Nobody, however, doubts who has the bonniest baby. At the age of 19, Wayne Rooney has been casting a shadow over Arsenal for three seasons and the imperious way he took his goals to dismiss Middlesbrough from the FA Cup on Saturday night suggests he is coming to Highbury in the form of his young life.

Just as George Best always seemed to be associated with goals against Chelsea, Rooney has been defined by his success against a team which in terms of pure football are the outstanding domestic side of their generation. His goals have twice shattered two long unbeaten runs and both represented defeats that undermined Arsenal's dominance of the Premiership.

"I rate Rooney as a player but I don't really know where he plays at the moment - is he a second striker or main striker?" Wenger said yesterday. "We don't really know but he is a great footballer. I feel he is most dangerous when he plays through the middle and he showed that on Saturday when he showed he can score goals from a central position. He did the same in Euro 2004 with England. We will have to be very well organised in every position to win."

If his involvement in the Manchester United victory at Old Trafford in October was overshadowed by Wenger's tirade against Ferguson, accusations of cheating and the involvement of pizza, his debut against Arsenal two years before remains unsullied. To Everton fans who were witnessing a decade or more of underachievement at Goodison Park slowly being pulled round under David Moyes, it was a sign that it could be based on something more than hard work and sweat.

Here was a boy, brought up in poverty Dixie Dean would have known as a youngster in Birkenhead, controlling a looping pass from Thomas Gravesen. Showing the same kind of instinct he demonstrated against Middlesbrough at Old Trafford, he noticed immediately that David Seaman was, like Mark Schwarzer on Saturday, both off his line and out of position and sent a veering, dipping shot beyond the grasp of a man old enough to be his father.

It sealed Arsenal's first Premiership defeat since December 2001 and although it ensured they lost the lead to Liverpool, Wenger was the very picture of magnanimity. "At least we lost our record to a special goal from a special talent," he said. "No goalkeeper in the world would have stopped that. He is the biggest English talent I have seen since I took over at Highbury. He is supposed to be 16 but I didn't know 16-year-olds could do things like that. He has everything you could dream of: intelligence, quick reactions, strong running with the ball."

When Rooney made his first appearance at Highbury in March 2003, he encountered a very different Arsenal. They were without a win in four matches and their rhythm and confidence were badly impaired. "We wanted to win no matter how," Wenger said of an ugly, brutal victory.

Pascal Cygan, a rare unsuccessful signing from French football, will remember it as a defeat. Rooney had spent the match tormenting him on Arsenal's left, benefiting from the space left by Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Twice he flummoxed Cygan, sending in a cross that Kevin Campbell could only strike into the side netting and then, once the roles were reversed, there was no let-off. Campbell released Rooney, Cygan backed off and the wonder-child drove a shot between his legs and into the net.

When, on his 19th birthday, Rooney allowed himself to fall over Sol Campbell's weary, trailing leg to win Manchester United the penalty that ensured the death of a 49-match unbeaten run, Wenger was rather more bitter. He claimed Rooney had admitted to some Arsenal players that he had dived. His final intervention, scoring in front of the Stretford End with seconds left was almost an afterthought in the context of the match. Arsenal had been pummelling forward in a desperate, unfocused attempt to equalise, allowing Alan Smith the freedom to sweep a pass across the face of Jens Lehmann's goal for Rooney to tap in.

Wenger has never doubted Rooney's effectiveness for Manchester United. When he was preparing for his Old Trafford debut, his club were seven points behind Arsenal after seven matches, seemingly a floundering, failing force. Wenger thought Rooney's arrival might spark them into life. After his admittedly uninspiring Premiership bow against Middlesbrough, Manchester United have taken 38 points from 17 matches; the form of champions. They, and he, have performed as Wenger both predicted and feared.