Manchester United's Wayne Rooney can fill gap left by Cristiano Ronaldo
If England are to avoid Death by Xaviesta at the World Cup, Rooney will be the only antidote to the Spanish inquisition. Still only 23 yet growing in stature by the month, Rooney hurtles towards a new season which could end up belonging to him. Although naturally espousing an approach to the limelight more Paul Scholes than Ronaldo, Rooney will find the arc-lights of national interest increasingly picking out his every stride across footballing stages at home and abroad, at Old Trafford and South Africa. The antithesis of egotism, United's No 10 does not chase the icon status that could yet be conferred on him in the next 13 months. First, though, the poster boy for the altruism movement must acquire one of Ronaldo's traits. Selfishness. When the point was put to him at England's Kazakhstan base, Rooney almost blanched. Being selfish does not come easily to such a team player, to an attacker who sacrifices himself to work the left flank in Sir Alex Ferguson's game-plan, who gives the impression that he would rather square the ball to a colleague if one-on-one with an opposing goalkeeper. During the recent trip to Almaty, Fabio Capello talked to his most important player about the need to be more of a finisher, of appreciating "that 80 per cent of Premier League goals are scored within 10 metres of goal''. Capello's advice was simple: "Get in front of goal.'' Few would claim this as rocket science but fireworks have resulted. Against Kazakhstan, Rooney struck with a hooked finish that Marco van Basten would have enjoyed. Against Andorra four days later, Rooney plundered two more close-range efforts that Alan Shearer would have loved, a well-directed header and then a muscular dart in front of a marker to score with his right foot. Capello has nurtured a poacher. For a footballer celebrated for his commitment to the collective, Rooney gathers some impressive individual statistics, joining distinguished company in the England record books. Those three goals carried him level with Sir Geoff Hurst's 24 (from 52 appearances, to Hurst's 49). In lifting his tally of competitive international goals to 16, Rooney overtook Kevin Keegan, Sir Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson. Only Alan Shearer (22), Gary Lineker (22) and Michael Owen (26) lie ahead. Statistics, of course, can be spun any way and Hurst's goals included a certain hat-trick in a certain final that was rather more demanding than netting three against Kazakhstan and Andorra, the latter described by England's goalkeeping supremo, Ray Clemence, as "the worst team I have seen in international football''. Yet Rooney has undoubtedly blossomed under Capello, his return of 10 England goals in a season bettered only by Jimmy Greaves in 1960-61. Used through the middle by Capello, Rooney hopes Ferguson will follow suit. "Playing out on the left you have responsibilities to get back and defend and sometimes that does take energy away from your attacking,'' Rooney reflected in Kazakhstan. "My best position is in the centre.'' So it is time for Ferguson to bring Rooney in from the cold, in from the wings that saw him isolated in Rome and make him United's main man. Taking lessons from England does not come naturally to Ferguson or United. Although their fans can be encountered on the road following the Three Lions to all corners of the globe, a well-established antipathy towards the national team exists at Old Trafford. The dislike has been stirred by the abuse of United players during England fixtures at the old Wembley, the vilification of David Beckham post-France 98 and the mocking of Phil Neville after Euro 2000. Throw in an admiration for Argentina and it is fair to say that the champions of England are unlikely to champion England's cause. Until now. "For once United fans have something to thank England for,'' remarked Charles Bogle of the influential Red News fanzine yesterday. "Capello's strong start as England manager has shown the positivity of playing Rooney in his natural position. "Now if we can just get [Dimitar] Berbatov and Rooney tucked in to work as Berbatov did with Robbie Keane [at Spurs]. Of course there are concerns as to what the tactics and players we'd need to accommodate that, but a good few [internet] forums are suggesting that 'this is Rooney's moment'.'' Rooney, who clearly loves life at United, can profit from Ronaldo's passion for Madrid. "From the shadows [of sorts],'' continued Bogle, "a player who is ready to commit to United, a player who hasn't let the off-field persona grow unsightly and seems to be living every fan's dream can help fill the void.'' His discipline improving on the pitch, as seen in only 12 fouls and two cautions in 13 Champions League games last season, Rooney's maturing is reflected off the field. Early fears about his lifestyle, about heading down the Gazza path, have proven unfounded. He has some fairly lively relatives, but Rooney himself seems remarkably down to earth, leaving premieres and It-girls to the likes of Ronaldo. Rooney probably thinks Paris Hilton is where Patrice Evra takes his family on holiday. If Rooney embodies Manchester United's team philosophy, Ronaldo has found his dream home amongst the galacticos of Real Madrid. A straw poll of United fans found little sign of Sleepless in Salford. There had been a general tiring with Ronaldo's antics, following the flirtation with Madrid last year and certain tracksuit-chucking stunts this year. "Since last summer's shenanigans, 'Viva Ronaldo' was sung reluctantly with the same sense as a parent with a temperamental child – 'we'd better include him or he'll sulk','' one fan observed yesterday. "No club or supporter will tolerate that for long from a player, regardless of how talented they are. The ethos of the club will be stronger without him.'' The show-man has gone but the show goes on. With Rooney in the middle of it. Viva Rooney.
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