Wayne Rooney, a Blue turned Manc, has become a hate figure with knobs on at Anfield, status hardly diminished by having scored the only goal of last season's fixture there. Throw in the tantrums of the past fortnight in Belfast and Villarreal, and for today's high-noon shoot-out there will be a much wider audience scrutinising every gesture as well as every touch of the ball. Sky Sports will not need to look far in choosing who should be the subject of the all-seeing player-cam that homes in on one individual and broadcasts every scratch of the groin and expulsion of phlegm.
In the North-west on Friday, conversation moved easily from Everton's humiliation in Bucharest the previous night to the former hero without whom they achieved so much last season. There was Liverpool's Rafael Benitez defending Rooney and other young players who live on the edge; at the other end of the East Lancs Road, Sir Alex Ferguson, report-edly "livid" with his protégé in private, was publicly standing by his man; and Manchester City's David James, once an England colleague, was offering advice from his own experience of controlling personal demons.
A manager of fewer scruples than Benitez would doubtless have been pressuring today's referee in advance, urging his players to fan the flames of Rooney's fiery temper and generally indulging in what he now knows to be the English expression "mind games". His preferred stance is: "I don't talk normally about other teams' players or managers." Even when invited to break the habit in the case of Rooney, he was more inclined to generalise: "It's normal when you have a player of this quality who is this young, he has a strong character, because you can't play at this level at 16 or 17 if you don't. I had Raul at Real Madrid at 17 playing in the first team. He wasn't the quickest, was not the best in the air, was not the strongest, but he had a very strong mentality. Rooney? I can only say he's a very good player and has all the ingredients of being a great player."
Thirty-odd miles away, Ferguson was being just as true to himself in making attack the best form of defence. Having a week earlier lambasted "you f****** people, you press... jumping on anything because it's Wayne Rooney", he turned his verbal flame-thrower on the "so-called experts". "Everyone can talk their tongues off about him, but I'm not interested in what the so-called experts say. They did it with Beckham. They did it with Gascoigne. They did it with Best. We expected it with Rooney. It's not surprised us."
Fergie has always been more interested in football management than anger management. Given his sensitivity over the issue, he may not take kindly to Friday's unexpected contribution from James, who has used a sports psychologist for several years. Some might say that the manner of his becoming an ex-England goalkeeper, by not preparing properly for a scheduled substitute's appearance against Denmark, is hardly a recommendation; but he remains one of the Premiership's more thoughtful practitioners, and has abundant experience of Rooney at close quarters, most recently in last weekend's drawn Manchester derby.
"I'm not going to criticise Wayne because I genuinely do love the guy, but when you talk about the building bricks of a top-of-the-League athlete, psychology is a part of it," James insisted. "Wayne is still a very young man in a position which has a lot of strain and stress on him. If I honestly felt there was something wrong with him, I wouldn't be able to sit here and defend him. He's a decent lad; he's just under a tremendous amount of pressure."
The City goalkeeper has worked with a psychologist since he decided to reassess his career after leaving Liverpool for Aston Villa, and would recommend that Rooney does the same. If not, he is happy that his young friend is in safe hands round the corner from City's training ground at Carrington. "It's helped me. I'm a much-improved goalkeeper, professional athlete if you like, because of my psychology work. So it does help. He will learn, I'm sure. He's in the right place, with Alex Ferguson and what they've got at their club, the biggest club in the world. They've got the likes of Roy Keane, who I'm sure will keep him in the right way. Roy has pulled people up in the past for thinking they're a bit above their station. I'm sure he'll continue to do that. He's in the best environment."
The difficult part, everyone agrees, is staying, and playing, close to the edge without toppling over it, as Rooney is wont to do on the big occasions. That makes Ferguson's proud claim that he is "a big-occasion player" sound suspiciously like tempting fate ahead of a game as heady as today's. And the United manager is the last man to play down the continuing resonance of the fixture which, just as it might have seemed to be of diminishing importance in the light of the Chelsea-Arsenal axis, suddenly features the new European champions.
"It never changes," he said. "I've been saying the same for 18 years. It's a fantastic game, to do with rivalry, geography, and the pressures on both clubs. It's the game I enjoy the most. I enjoy the atmosphere this game creates. Both sets of fans hate each other. This game either makes you or breaks you. It can kill you or make you a hero."
Strong words, spoken from a position of some strength; United have won the three previous League meetings at Anfield and six of the last nine. Benitez's words, just as characteristically, are gently philosophical: "After a Sunday comes a Monday."
If the talk is again to be of Wayne's world tomorrow morning in Merseyside and Manchester, English football as a whole must hope it is for positive reasons.Reuse content