It was hard not to cast your mind back four years, when Sir Alex Ferguson's vision of the future he foresees for Wayne Rooney was published yesterday. In the 2009 pre-season, Rooney spoke of his desire to "develop from someone who could be great" into "someone who is a great player". He was supposed to be a superstar back then – still thinks he can be – and yet here was his manager yesterday describing how Shinji Kagawa, a player with five goals and 15 starts for Manchester United, "likes to play through the middle on his own" and that since that was the same for Rooney, the fourth highest scorer in the club's history, we "maybe have to alternate them". The notion of Robin van Persie sharing his place at the spear of the team with Rooney did not even seem to be a consideration in the manager's disclosures to the Sunday newspapers.
There were certainly worse places to be than in Rooney's boots yesterday. Rafael Benitez's dug-out for example, where 10 minutes into the game he had "fat Spanish waiter" and "you fat b*****d" raining down on him from opposite ends and opposite shades of support. Which was some stereo symphony. Ferguson's ideas for Rooney really were dismal, though, and rendered yesterday's big headline – that a new contract would be forthcoming for him this summer – one that raised more questions than answers. Such as how a salary of £150,000 a week might be conceivable for this player, let alone his current £250,000, when the day arrives to talk brass tacks. Ferguson also claimed that he had not even realised the contract of his best paid and perhaps third best player was even up for renewal in two years, which perhaps indicated the folly of attaching significance to the press conference circus at all.
It wasn't a hugely encouraging start for Rooney when, having been given the chance to start up front – something that was denied him when Real Madrid stood across this pitch – he sprinted out towards the hoarding advertising the chance to "watch the first team train". His first touch was heavy – a piece of chest control which sent the ball rolling out of play, to the collective glee of the visiting audience. It was not an exhilarating United even then, when they eased ahead of a Chelsea whose rag-tag return for the beginning of the second half, strung out in ones and twos, said everything about the lack of collective spirit at that stage.
The United manager's strategy – balls lifted high into the area to destroy David Luiz – was rather better suited to Javier Hernandez, the striker with the greater spring. So Rooney had to make his moments as best he could, and there seemed to be symbolism about the way he struck from an obscure position, out on the left – driving a 20-yard free-kick from there with heavy slice which looped over Luiz and Jonny Evans and bounced inside the post. It was Rooney's 196th goal for this club and though not his most exquisite by many a mile there are few which have come with a sweeter timing, in the context of the past week. It took the players a time to reach him out there, so he just stood, hands aloft, taking the applause which thundered through the stadium, the faintest hint of a smile playing across his face.
And beyond that it was another of those Rooney blue-collar shifts; chasing, harrying, bursting into a sprint to close a player down. That is all well and good, but it is not leaving his name seared across British football this season as it did last, when he was a striker, pure and simple, and his 34-goal tally was more than double that of any of his team-mates.
Fabio Capello, who adored Rooney, always told him to do less of this foraging around. "I have been shouted at a few times for doing that too much!" the striker admitted towards the end of his time working with that manager, grinning at the memory of Capello's reaction to him appearing during a game where an England centre-back should have been. Ferguson demands a different kind of contribution and some who worry about where Rooney's career is going here believe some selfishness wouldn't go amiss. Is he a striker? Is he a midfielder? Yesterday he just seemed stranded somewhere in between the two, when he is in fact a penalty-box player; a striker even more likely than Van Persie to find the net when the ball drops in there. Ferguson said his team vanished because they tired, in the second half. But it was their attacking threat which evaporated, too.
In the margins of the afternoon, there was evidence of how, for all the recent pronouncements about him, the game of football can offer redemption for those who seem not to be fulfilling earlier promise. The Michael Carrick who lifted a gorgeous fifth-minute pass for Hernandez to lever the ball into the net is the same Carrick whose career seemed to be failing three seasons back. There is always the chance for Rooney to become the player Capello saw him becoming on the greatest stage.
In the first volume of his autobiography My Story so Far, written from the perspective that his early United glory was only a preface to greater things, Rooney told of how he had discovered the value of ice baths after games – something old-stagers Paul Scholes and Gary Neville swore by, to help ease the aches and pains which were beginning to afflict him.
"At the age of 21 it's clear what's happening," the book concludes. "I've become a veteran – so excuse me while I go and lie down." A man of routine, he took to the ice as always last night, with the world no closer to knowing whether the best may yet be ahead of him.