James Lawton: Rooney's rededication to the pursuit of glory sets admirable standard for the new season
It may well be that not all the mockery that greeted Wayne Rooney's declaration that he aspires to the levels achieved by Lionel Messi will have subsided by the time he appears at Wembley tomorrow afternoon.
However, one of the more encouraging facts in a football build-up that has been rather less than overwhelming is that he plainly retains the ability to track down what is left of the derision and put it to the sword.
He certainly did it the last time he played Manchester City and then the question was not whether he could ever conjure anything of the magic of Messi, but if he retained even a fragment of the brilliance that once persuaded some hard judges that he might indeed prove to be a player of the ages.
The goal that gave United vital momentum in pursuit of their 19th title was, of course, utterly extraordinary – so much so that he firmly believes it is the best he ever scored – and it would have been so had it come from the boot of a player rejoicing in one of the peaks of his form. In fact, it was knocked in by someone on whom copious obituaries had already been written, with varying degrees of conviction.
Maybe it partly explains the adrenalin rush Rooney is apparently anticipating when he starts the Community Shield game against City, who in his absence in the FA Cup semi-final were able to follow the promptings of their best player, Yaya Touré, and sweep towards their first trophy in 35 years.
Rooney wasn't exactly luminous against City in that hard-fought derby but when he produced the winner so majestically it was as though he may just have unlocked a door. Certainly, his play took on some of its old weight and subtlety in the run-in to the title, not least when he magnificently shaped a United comeback at Upton Park before yelling so disastrously into a touchline microphone.
The Messi statement came in the wake of Rooney's thoroughly committed performance in the shadow of football's Little Maestro in the Champions League final. Also entirely admirable were Rooney's sentiments. He didn't say that he was launching himself into some sure-fire, mano-a-mano contest with the great Argentine. No, he said that Messi had set a standard which every player was obliged to attempt to follow.
Indeed, if you took the trouble to read between the lines you might have identified not some vainglorious assertion but more than a hint of a mea culpa.
It did, after all, come after a season in which worries about Rooney's ability to resurrect some of the brilliance of his youth had been assuaged to any degree only in the final stages.
His World Cup performance created a shadow over his career which will not easily be dispelled in three years' time, assuming he remains England's far and away most gifted player. The unravelling of his private life cast question marks against his old reputation as one of the last of the street footballers, someone whose passion for the game would always be a buttress against the distractions of extreme wealth and celebrity. His heavily contrived contract dispute with Manchester United looked rather like the last word in grasping cynicism.
Worst of all, not only did Rooney play poorly for most of the season, he quite often looked resigned to the fact that something vital had left him. It was the flash of intuition, the touch of authority which separates the great players, even struggling great players, from the rest.
When you consider such realities there is surely an obligation to see Rooney's Messi statement in a wholly favourable light.
He did not suggest he was speaking of a routine ambition. He was admitting, if only by implication, a serious shortfall in his own achievement. And he was doing this from a position which a less driven individual might not have considered exactly embattled. With earnings of £20m a year, when sponsorships were added to his £200,000-a-week pay slips, he still, after all the convulsions of his year, lagged behind only Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the wealth league of front-rank active players.
Tomorrow City will not be lacking challengers to Rooney's restated pursuit of glory. Sergio Aguero, Diego Maradona's son-in-law and a performer of both silky touch and impressive bite, will be presenting his credentials to a new audience and Touré will no doubt be seeking to inflict the influence so powerfully exerted at the end of last season.
On Rooney's own side, Javier Hernandez will be striving as hungrily as ever for the fresh gun-belt notches that will enhance one of the fastest rising reputations in world football.
At the approach of his 26th birthday, Rooney is not without evidence that the challenge he has earmarked for himself is hardly exclusive. Yet in a way this only increases the merit of his resolve to be judged, by himself and the rest of football, only according to the highest standards.
He never said he was as good or as consistent as Messi – or that he believed that one day he would surpass him. The declaration was merely that the little man had set the standard for all footballers of exceptional talent. How comfortably Rooney continues to inhabit such company is not the least intriguing question on the way to Wembley tomorrow. It is surely to Wayne Rooney's great credit that he is the man who posed it.
Tiger still thrives beyond McIlroy's protected habitat
Tiger Woods may not have made an unanswerable statement of resurrection with a 68 in a low-scoring opening of the Bridgestone Invitational – and especially not with so much accompanying evidence that his work off the tee still owes far too much to chance and speculation.
Yet who can say it is not some kind of charge to the spirit to see him back?
Certainly, his return is timely in the wake of suspicions that it may have been a shade premature to assume Rory McIlroy is a sure-fire challenger to the Tiger's mark of 14 major triumphs, not to mention the 18 of Jack Nicklaus.
Brilliant though he is, the young Ulsterman is plainly some way from the certainties of the 21-year-old Tiger after his sensational breakthrough in the 1997 Masters. McIlroy's complaints about the British climate, his view that maybe the manicured lawns and sunshine of Florida are so much more to his taste than the wild linksland that has brought the best out of the world's great golfers, is jarring not only to the game's aficionados.
It carries more than a hint of a certain shortfall in ambition to conquer every aspect of a game for which he has been so bountifully equipped. No one ever made such a charge against the Tiger until his private life was exposed so dramatically. Even now, you have to suspect that some great days may still lie ahead.
No doubt this is also true of Rory McIlroy but will it only be when he deems the time – and the weather – is right? If so, it has to be a serious worry.
Dazed by Tuilagi's breakneck rise
It may be that Manu Tuilagi is indeed the new serious hope of English rugby union – and that he will inflict much damage on the Welsh at Twickenham today.
But then you don't have to live among the clouds, Polynesian or otherwise, to have at least a little concern about the speed of his elevation. This, of course, resides in the fact that had he done to his new team-mate Chris Ashton on the street what he did on the field he might well have been not a putative hero of the nation but a guest of Her Majesty.
Tuilagi served five weeks suspension for his recent sickening, unbridled attack on Ashton. Not withstanding the remarkable elasticity of rugby union morality, the breakneck pace of his redemption can only be described – if Ashton will forgive the expression – as stunning.
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