Rooney can be 'as good as Messi'

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Five years after a hat-trick on European debut, Ferguson holds faith that his striker will join the world's greats

It was not the most unexpected debut – everybody knew how rare Wayne Rooney's ability was. However, it was the most spectacular beginning to a Manchester United career.

Click here or click the image to see our guide to Rooney in Europe: The highs and lows

Five years ago, Rooney set foot on home turf for the first time as a United player and, facing Fenerbahçe the team that had once ended their record of never having lost a European tie at Old Trafford, scored three times in the space of 37 electric minutes.

It was his first match since suffering a broken foot in Euro 2004; a competition that, but for that injury, England might have won. It seemed then that Rooney would dominate Old Trafford in a way that George Best, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona had once done, although the emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo meant that often he had to take second or even third billing.

Now on the eve of his 50th European game for Manchester United –against Wolfsburg – the man who signed him argued Rooney was on the verge of fulfilling every aspect of his potential. "We have had the World Player of the Year here [in the shape of Ronaldo] and that is the challenge there now for every player," Sir Alex Ferguson said . "There are some great players out there – Kaka, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the best three at the moment and I think Wayne can get to that level if he keeps making progress.

"When we signed him as a teenager, we thought he would become a really top player and he is going in that direction without question. He is blessed with certain ingredients that only great players have – that special hunger and determination.

"They want to win every match and every training session and it will never change. That is a wonderful thing to take into a game of football these days.

"You sometimes wonder about the criticism of the money players are paid but when you look at the effort Wayne puts into his work, then he is worth every penny. He plays as if he means it and that is a wonderful thing to have and we have had many players at Manchester United – Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce – like that. It is a prerequisite of coming to this club."

Yet despite those spectacular beginnings, Rooney struggled in the Champions League to the extent that he did not score again for another 15 matches spanning two-and-a-half years, in which time his most memorable intervention was to get himself sent off at Villarreal in September 2005.

He broke the scoreless run in a 2-1 quarter-final defeat away to Roma in 2007 and that loss was spectacularly answered in a 7-1 drubbing in the return at Old Trafford, with Rooney scoring again. At the moment, however, Rooney is experiencing something of a drought with just a single goal in 11 Champions League matches. His goals come in waves.

"European football is a challenge," said Ferguson. "It features the best teams in the world. Wayne has had some fantastic games in Europe and, if we are honest, some disappointing ones. It is not an easy competition. But Wayne has played more centrally this season, which may be the answer, and he will play centrally against Wolfsburg."

Fabio Capello, his manager for England, believes that marriage has calmed Rooney down and turned him to a better footballer. Unless the bride is Victoria Beckham, Ferguson has always been an advocate of early marriage "because then you know where a player is at night". Dwight Yorke's enjoyment of the single life was a principal reason for the striker's terminal falling out with his manager.

"Marriage helps footballers, I have always thought that," said Ferguson, who married when he was 24. "I am an advocate of that because it helps them settle down. It gives them stability."

Sitting next to him in the pre-match press conference was his young defender, Jonny Evans, who was asked if at 21 he was old enough to marry. The sheepish Ulsterman stammered that his girlfriend was in the press seats. Ferguson roared: "Get him tied down, dear. Rings are cheap now."

17 goals, 49 games: Rooney in Europe

Highs

*Scores remarkable hat-trick on United debut in 6-2 demolition of Fenerbahçe at Old Trafford in 2004.

*Hits the third goal in extraordinary 7-1 thrashing of Roma in 2007 on way to semi-finals.

*Part of the United team that won the Champions League in Moscow in 2008, beating Chelsea in a penalty shoot-out.

*2004 to date: Games: 49 Goals: 17

Lows

*Sent off in goalless draw with Villarreal in 2005 for sarcastically clapping referee Kim Milton Nielsen.

*Rooney is banned for two games and United go on to finish bottom of their qualifying group.

*Plays in the demoralising 2009 final, a 2-0 defeat to Barcelona in Rome, failing to make any impact against a superior Catalan side.

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