Ian Herbert: Rooney lives up to billing as United's fox in the box

United must overturn a 2-1 deficit - but striker's killer instinct has Mancini nervous
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A tale of two Rooneys and one city. When Hull visited Old Trafford last season, the striker was a man on his own mental plane, rampaging uncontrollably around the pitch in that mood which sometimes takes him and was booked in a 4-3 win. When Hull visited Old Trafford on Saturday, he was back on a different level of his own, scoring all four goals before leaving the pitch with a Hull City shirt tucked into his shorts for posterity and Sir Alex Ferguson in little doubt that he has the finest striker in the country on his hands.

Ferguson muttered darkly yesterday that he believes Real Madrid are trying to inveigle their way to his signature. "I think we know where that is coming from," he said. "In fact, we are sure where it's coming from. It's not his agent. It's not Wayne. So, we'll deal with that." But he will not be losing any sleep over the Madrilenos this time around, though, because while you always knew that Cristiano Ronaldo would head back to the sun one day, Rooney has never displayed the slightest inclination.

Contract negotiations will begin this summer but you sense that Rooney is a player so wedded to his own game at periods like this that he probably does not even know that his current deal expires in two-and-a-half years' time. If the Spanish have read about that £500m bond issue of the Glazers and got covetous, they've forgotten that the simmering antipathy felt towards the American owners would burst into full-blown revolt if Rooney, the heartbeat of Manchester United at the age of 24, becomes the latest to service the balance sheet.

It had always seemed that Rooney would be the major beneficiary of Ronaldo's departure last summer, freeing him as it did from the yoke created by the Portuguese's reluctance to do any heavy lifting. But the transformation from "someone who could be great" into "someone who is a great player" – the aspiration Rooney spoke of last summer – has been remarkable. Last season, he would materialise on any part of the pitch and often pop up where the full-back should be. Now, he quite simply belongs in the penalty box. Every one of the 19 goals he has scored this season have come in there, prompting his manager to reflect yesterday that he indeed does have on his hands the first United "fox in the box" since Ruud van Nistelrooy joined the procession to Madrid four years ago.

"I think he has become more aware of the penalty box," Ferguson said of Rooney. "Playing in that direct role has given him the appetite to be in the box more of the time. He still has moments when he goes to other areas of the pitch, but it's about choosing those moments more maturely.

"I think the main reason he is scoring more goals is because he has been in the right place at the right time. That's what goalscorers do: be in the right place at the right time. I don't think he is becoming more selfish in those situations. He is realising that, as the main striker through there, he is threatening all the time, so he is getting the rewards for that."

The chances coming Rooney's way are considerably greater than those he takes: there were probably 10 in the 3-0 win over Burnley. "The thing about that is, as a true striker, they don't bother about missing chances," Ferguson reflected. "They know they will get another. Experience is always the key issue with players with potential. I had that as a player when I got to 24. I started to understand myself more. Every player is like that, not just Rooney."

There is a bit more to this story than maturity, though. Fabio Capello, with his habit of closely scrutinising Rooney at work in training, has had a huge influence, perhaps more even than Ferguson. Rooney sheepishly related, last autumn, Capello's reaction to his predilection for picking up a ball in front of his own defence. "I have been shouted at a few times for doing that too much," he said. But he has also articulated the way Capello has restored the basic striker's principles in him. "He said to me 'get in front of the goal more.' He is on the training pitch all the time... and telling me to do certain things."

Roberto Mancini is understandably less affectionate. It was put to him yesterday that Rooney – whose performance eclipsed that of Carlos Tevez in the Carling Cup semi-final first-leg – was the man to shut out tonight. "I hope that Rooney scored all his goals last Saturday," he replied. The accompanying laugh was a nervous one.

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