Rooney hones virtuoso skills in new role as second fiddle

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During the summer, as the dust settled on another disappointing World Cup for England, a wave of optimism washed over Old Trafford as Manchester United's supporters anticipated a season of domestic football driven by one of the game's most dynamic rising stars. That the catalyst for a thrilling campaign hails from Lisbon rather than Liverpool has caught everyone by surprise.

After a painful conclusion to last season and an even more hurtful experience in Germany, this was meant to be the year when Wayne Rooney was reinvented as the outstanding talent of his generation. Older, apparently wiser, and at ease with the potentially crippling weight of expectation on his broad, but previously flawed, shoulders, the forward had the beautiful game at his feet. Alan Shearer's retirement had opened up an obvious vacancy within the Premiership for a homegrown hero who wears his heart on his sleeve and Rooney had emerged as the perfect candidate.

What an irony, then, that it is the arch nemesis of the English game who has stylishly and successfully usurped his Manchester United team-mate in reaching out for the affections of the neutrals this season. Cristiano Ronaldo shares Rooney's sublime talent, passion for football and desire to win at all costs. They even shared the limelight, until now.

Some would say Rooney has been living in Ronaldo's shadow all season but the past week appeared to prove the point beyond all doubt. The latter went into yesterday's fixture buoyed by a scoring run of six goals in three games.

Rooney is unused to playing second fiddle but there is a valid argument that he is orchestrating Manchester United like never before. Using Ronaldo's unrivalled statistics as a convenient screen, the ambitious 21-year-old is undergoing a discreet but very definite transformation. At the hub of every attack and spotting space where others simply see opposition shirts, Rooney's reinvention is a lesson in the fusion of raw aggression with razor-sharp instinct. Roy Keane with pace, if you like.

Ronaldo may have scored 12 League goals to Rooney's eight this season but it is the sum total which means so much to Sir Alex Ferguson as he seeks to topple Chelsea as champions in 2007. Newcastle's young but determined defence saw off Louis Saha, marshalled Ryan Giggs well and, until his brisk equaliser in the 40th minute, even kept a lid on the scheming Paul Scholes. During an enthralling first half Ronaldo was restricted to the odd dart down the flank and one disastrous long-range shot but one player in red was impossible to contain. A reaction save from Shay Given denied Rooney his goal seven minutes before the break but in every other aspect he was both menacing and mesmerising.

On this occasion it was Scholes, rather than Ronaldo, who benefited most from the new unsung hero within Ferguson's ranks. Rooney may be one of the finest finishers in the modern game but he revels in his role on the periphery of the opposition goalmouth and it is here where the real value of his unfussy reinvention is revealed. Scholes demands the closest of attention but Newcastle's defenders had long been entranced by the veteran midfielder's classy colleague. Let the Rooney years roll.

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