When the the sun had finally set on Wembley last night and the players had trotted in from their training ritual, a solitary figure was left juggling around with the ball in a way that made it so evident that he felt departing this turf was a wasted opportunity. One last pass or two to the coaches, a brief intrusion on his manager's pitchside conversation with two of the Glazer brothers and Wayne Rooney was gone.
In Rome, two years ago, when Cristiano Ronaldo took the top table at the pre-match press conference, Rooney was the support act, shackled to the left wing and frustrated all night. Now he takes centre stage – he and Rio Ferdinand led the training sprints – and a central berth and it was clear from his manager's words last night that an older, wiser Rooney is a significant reason why he feels United are better equipped. "Rooney is much more mature than 2009," his manager said
This time last year Mexico were the visitors to Wembley for one of the last pre-World Cup warm-ups into which Rooney carried the nation's burdens. This time he looks like a player who has a half a season left to run. In a sense he has: the contractual and domestic troubles of last autumn meant his campaign effectively did not start until this year.
Ferdinand last night pointed to Rooney's scissors-kick goal against Manchester City to demonstrate a point that his temperament also befits huge occasions, two years on. "Regardless of what happened last summer, whenever we've asked Wayne to stand up and be counted he has been there," he said.
Rooney knows what he is up against. He saw it when Barcelona defeated Real Madrid in the semi-final. "I was watching in my living rom and I actually stood up and applauded what I was seeing," he said. "Colleen walked in and asked what I was doing. It was the best performance I've ever seen. I don't think it was quite that bad [against us] in 2009 but if you looked at the Real players' faces they were shell-shocked."
Rooney's reluctance to relinquish the ball last night suggested that he knows that he cannot set about Ferguson's game plan for the final soon enough.
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