James Lawton: World game's summit beckons as Rooney nears peak of his powers

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The Independent Football

It was the certainty of it that was so compelling, the sense of someone who had removed all the clutter from his game, all the doubts, and was utterly on top of everything he was doing.

When Wayne Rooney scored his second goal at the start of the second half – and his 30th of the season – Sir Alex Ferguson, who was chastising him so recently for his insistence on grabbing every available second of game time, did not respond with any great abandonment to the fact that his team were now freewheeling into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. He just grinned like a man holding an unbeatable hand in another round of poker.

Unbeatable, certainly, in the knowledge that he could not want more from the 24-year-old who has so spectacularly filled the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo at the end of last season.

In his own perfect world, Ferguson would have Rooney as the exclusive driving hammer of all the remaining hopes he carries into the final phase of his extraordinary career. But if he frets over the fact that Rooney has also worked his way to the centre of England's best hopes for this summer's World Cup finals in South Africa – and, at the age of 24 perhaps at least two more – he must count it as the cost of possessing a national football treasure.

Watching him last night was to be reminded of how bizarre it was that some of us worried about his potential to be drawn away from the passion for football that had made his progress from the back streets of Liverpool so inevitable. Remember the concerns about his disconnection with his roots when he moved into the mansion in Cheshire, when he had a celebrity wedding accompanied by the whir of paparazzi helicopters, and also whether there had been an accumulation of disillusionment while operating somewhat in the shadow of Ronaldo, another virtuoso, of course, but one who seemed to carry a sharply different agenda?

Worries about all that, plus a temperament that often came under fierce and disturbing examination at moments of extreme pressure, are surely at their lowest point now. The reinforcement of such optimism, so soon after his anonymous performance in the Champions League final last spring, is that Rooney's passion for football has held. It remains, when all else has changed since those days in one of the poorest corners of Merseyside, at the centre of his life.

Neither of last night's goals was destined to figure high in any catalogue of his best moments as a player of power and bewitching natural ability. They didn't underline quite the level of execution that was implicit in the early forecasts that Rooney was heading not for stardom but the status of one of the truly great players produced in these islands and, yes, maybe the world. But they were indeed the goals of a striker – for that is what he is, purely, in the minds of everyone and most importantly Ferguson – reaching towards the peak of his powers.

The first goal was excellent, of course, even given a Milan defence which was a parody of those days when it exerted an iron grip on the highest levels of the European game. When Neville found the space to float across a perfect centre Rooney's mere presence in front of goal was a death sentence for the men in the red and black. The second was still more inevitable with a beautifully weighted pass from the resurrected Nani and Rooney easing the ball into the net as formally as though he was turning the page of a newspaper.

When Ferguson promptly withdrew Rooney, saving him for a fresh assault on a fourth straight Premier League title against Fulham at the weekend, Milan's shattered, and surely doomed, coach Leonardo sent on David Beckham. He was received warmly and produced several touches to confirm that in the right circumstances he still is a masterful striker of the ball, but in fact it was another, rather different, turning of a page. What Beckham, whose return to Old Trafford had carried predictable levels of hype, had come to do, practically speaking, was witness another step towards the kind of lionisation he once enjoyed on these premises. Rooney owned the night – and the future.

Amid the celebrations was the smiling face of Sir Bobby Charlton, whose record of 49 goals for England is finally in the sights of a player who can not only beat it but leave it somewhat lost in a tide of extraordinary commitment and scoring facility.

Charlton said: "Wayne Rooney is a peach of a footballer. He warms your heart with his love of the game. Given that, there is reason to believe there is nothing he cannot do."

One considerable achievement was delivered last night. It was that evidence of a player reaching out for the pinnacles of the game.

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