Rooney's fine form provides United's silver lining
The performance of the England striker bodes well for both Sir Alex Ferguson and Fabio Capello
If there was one crumb of comfort to be clawed from the wreckage of Manchester United's Champions League final defeat it was in the shape of the bull-headed young man who scored their goal.
After a difficult year Rooney is finishing the season in form, which is deeply encouraging both for Sir Alex Ferguson, as he begins the task of creating a side that can live with Barcelona, and also for Fabio Capello as he plots England's assault on Euro 2012 next summer.
Because, for all his talent, Rooney has rarely stamped himself on the biggest occasions, certainly not to the extent he suggested he would when bursting on to the international scene at Euro 2004.
There was that stunning goal for Everton against Arsenal, by which he announced himself to the world, and a hat-trick against Fenerbahce on his Champions League debut. But two World Cup adventures have ended in ignominy and he was peripheral in both his previous Champions League finals, in Moscow and Rome, substituted in the first, cast out to the wing in the second.
This time, with Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo departed, and Dimitar Berbatov cold-shouldered, Rooney was given the responsibility of leading United's attack. Playing behind Javier Hernandez, in what most observers feel is his best position, he had a dual role. Not only was he the link between Hernandez and the midfield, he also had to disrupt Sergio Busquets' role in Barcelona's passing game. And if he could chip in with a goal as well, all the better.
Rooney fulfilled two of his tasks. The goal was superbly taken and well made, Rooney exchanging passes with Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs before shooting past Victor Valdes. Busquets' passing rate was significantly down on average, he made around 25 per cent less passes than he normally does when playing for Barcelona in Europe.
Linking with Hernandez proved more difficult, largely because United had so much trouble winning and retaining possession. Rooney had to go hunting the ball, which meant he became detached from the Mexican. In total, they exchanged only six successful passes in the 90 minutes – Lionel Messi and Xavi exchanged 58.
Rooney's aerial strength made him a target for Edwin van der Sar's kicking in the early stages as United sought to bypass the midfield and go direct. Hernandez got on to the end of one flick, but to no great consequence, and Valdes was forced to rush from his goal to clear another as Rooney bore down. Rooney was also prominent as United tried to press the Barcelona goalkeeper and his defenders, prompting Dani Alves to twice waste the ball. But as Barcelona settled Rooney became drawn into the defensive game, at one stage winning possession with a tackle on the edge of his area as United dropped deeper and deeper. Hernandez, though, became an ever-more distant figure.
It must have been frustrating, but Rooney's famously short fuse did not ignite, even when a couple of close decisions went against him – there were gestures of annoyance, but nothing that would be regarded as serious dissent. At the end he was one of the first United players to offer his congratulations to the opposition, and to thank the referee.
Unfortunately for Capello, Rooney is not available to play against Switzerland in the Euro 2012 qualifier this Saturday, his booking against Wales, when his frustration did get the better off him, was his second of the campaign, ruling him out. On the flip side, he will have a longer summer break, which he will need if England, and Manchester United, are to achieve their ambitions next season.
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