Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho offered no guarantees on Tuesday night that Wayne Rooney would be at the club beyond next week, declaring: "You'll have to ask him. You'll have to ask him," when asked if he might leave for China by next Tuesday.
Mourinho, who also offered a bleak assessment of full back Luke Shaw’s prospects, offered no warmth for Rooney - refusing to answer when asked if the captain was desperate to play in Sunday's EFL Cup final with his club Wembley opportunities running out. He referred to the player as "Rooney" and joked with the translator of his Europa League press about the predictability of the Rooney question coming up, with the Chinese transfer window closing next Tuesday.
Mourinho’s indifference to the 31-year-old’s availability will make bleaker reading for Rooney - who was considered integral to the United side just a year ago - than his comments on China, which the player is far more likely to be tempted by next season than next week. The £600,000-a-week on offer could be enough to see the player leave North-west England for the first time, with his United chances receding and more spending planned next summer.
Rooney, who has 18 months to run on his contract, with United having the option of keeping him for a further season, was back in training at the club’s Carrington base on Tuesday but did not fly out to Saint-Etienne, where United take a 3-0 lead into Wednesday night’s Europa League round of 32 second leg. He has not featured since February because of an unspecified muscular injury and started one game in nine for the club. Mourinho said he could not say if he would play a part in Sunday’s final against Southampton.
Asked if Rooney would be here beyond next week, Mourinho said: “You have to ask him if he sees himself staying in the club for the rest of his career or sees himself moving. It is not a question for me because I am happy to have him. You have to ask him, not me. You have to ask him. I was very open with you in the answer. I don’t want him to leave.”
To the question of the player being at United until the end of the season, he said: “Of course I can’t guarantee. I cannot guarantee that I’m here next week, how can I guarantee that a player is here next season? What I can guarantee is that if one day Wayne leaves the club it is not because I want him to leave the club. I would never push a legend of this club to another destiny.”
The decision to leave Rooney back in Manchester was understandable, given that Wednesday morning was the first time he had trained for more than a week. But the decision not to include 21-year-old Shaw in his squad was more revealing, with the Portuguese offering a brutally candid explanation.
He had been left out because Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian were all “playing the way I like a full-back to play” Mourinho said. “Luke has to wait for his chance and work better knowing that I give nothing for free. When I give something to the players it’s expensive for them, they have to work really hard every day. They have to play well so he has to wait.
“In this moment he is behind the others. Potentially he has many things that I like but potential is one thing and another is on the pitch to express all the qualities that I like a player to express. He has to keep working like [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan [did], for a long time.”
The hat-trick scored by Zlatan Ibrahimovic in last Thursday’s first leg against the French meant the second leg barely warranted discussion ahead of Wednesday night.
Saint-Etienne had been preparing for a more auspicious scoreline than this to take into the game. Their club shop is packed out with ‘half’ mugs and T-shirts as well as scarves for the occasion, part of the extraordinary range ‘pour l’amour des verts’ as the legend has it. There will be a febrile atmosphere to match the noise the Saint-Etienne contingent brought to Old Trafford last week – “a very, very big atmosphere” promised manager Christophe Galtier - but the home side have a mountain to climb here in the Massif Central.
Mourinho has sampled the atmosphere on two previous occasions, with Porto and also once scouting a Saint-Etienne v Olympic Lyon match having drawn the latter in the Champions League.
With just one defeat in all competitions since the Europa League group stage loss at Fenerbahce on November 3, the Portuguese was able to answer a question about his future with confidence. Asked about a report that he had been touted for a return to Real Madrid, the club he left four years ago, Mourinho said: “I have a contract for two more years with Manchester United and unless Manchester United wants me to leave I don’t leave because I love to work for this club. To leave must be my board to tell me that.” Rooney’s prospects look less encouraging.
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