Wayne Rooney is fighting to save his Manchester United career, with his manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s profound doubts about the player’s approach to his work now a cause of daily tension between the two.
Ferguson’s decision to exclude Rooney from the starting line-up for Tuesday’s Champions League tie against Real Madrid reflected the manager’s view that the 27-year-old is not dealing with the weight and fitness issues which he believes have been a problem since the start of the season.
United, against whom Uefa have opened disciplinary proceedings over Nani’s red card – he is likely to be handed a one-game ban – and the non-fulfilment of post-match media obligations following the 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid, face an imminent decision about Rooney’s future this summer, when the forward enters the final two years of his contract.
The club cannot allow him to drift into the final year of the £250,000-a-week deal he struck after threatening to leave three years ago. Unless Rooney can improve enough to repair his relationship with Ferguson, the United manager will consider selling him if the club receives an offer above £20m.
The strains in the relationship between Ferguson and Rooney have been evident at the Carrington training ground for some months, with the manager’s concerns about the player’s fitness rooted in the Scot’s decision to say that he “wasn’t as fit” as the other players when returning pre-season.
Ferguson said that Rooney’s gashed thigh, sustained against Fulham on 25 August was a “blessing” as it gave him the opportunity to spend time in the gym.
Rooney, for his own part, feels that he has done what he needs to do to be fit and Ferguson’s disinclination to praise him richly when he has made a contribution to a game – his two assists and goal in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Norwich City being one example – has not gone unnoticed. There is a palpable daily sense of the tension between the pair of them at Carrington, where Ferguson’s impatience shows.
Rooney, who said in an interview published this week that he felt "fresh and ready" for the remainder of the season, might also argue that he has sacrificed himself for the good of the team by operating as a utility player in a number of positions this season, as Robin van Persie has taken the striker's role in which Rooney scored 35 goals last season.
There is a view that Rooney would be well served by demanding the dedicated role which would bring him goals and greater recognition. His performance in the first match with Madrid was widely criticised, for example, when the striker covered much ground undertaking defensive duties.
It is known that Paris Saint-Germain will be seeking a striker to operate with Zlatan Ibahimovich next season, though whether Rooney might be that target remains unclear. The Qatari-backed club clearly have the money to buy and pay him. Manchester City may also renew their interest in the player, whom they tried to buy in October 2010, forcing United to offer him a lucrative deal to stay.
It does not appear that Ferguson holds any grudges over the way that Rooney publicly questioned the club's ability to sign world-class players back in 2010, though having subsequently sanctioned the deal which smashed United's pay structure, he will expect more dedication from Rooney than most.
Uefa is likely to impose an automatic one-game ban on Nani for his red card, when the body's Control and Disciplinary Committee meets on 21 March. United may submit their comments about the challenge to enhance the prospect of the ban not being increased.
Rio Ferdinand could also face action over his sarcastic applause directed at Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir, if Cakir includes it in his report, the contents of which were still not known tonight. Uefa has said it is happy with the performance of Cakir who, like other Champions League referees, was under no instructions to come down hard on fouls like Nani's.
United are also likely to be fined for failing to make Ferguson and at least two players available in tunnel “flash positions” after the game.