Before a certain Turkish referee intervened, it seemed likely that, one way or another, the narrative around the second-leg of Manchester United’s Champions League last-16 tie with Real Madrid would be dominated by Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to drop Wayne Rooney to the bench.
While the sending off of Nani has understandably taken over as the key talking point from a night of drama, Rooney’s omission could yet have far-reaching effects.
Just over two years ago, Rooney virtually held the club to ransom over his demands for a new contract as well as his claims that better players needed to be signed in order to match his own ambitions. Now, he has been excluded from a match that was arguably United’s biggest since the 2011 Champions League final.
Not long ago there was widespread anguish at the thought of Rooney not being available for big matches (remember the desperation to get him fit for the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal with Bayern Munich in 2010?). Yet, ironically, it is the club’s fulfillment of Rooney’s wishes to sign top-level players that has pushed him to the fringes.
Robin van Persie’s summer arrival almost instantly relegated Rooney to the part of sidekick. It is not the first time it has happened for the 27-year-old.
The man who scored the winner for Madrid on Tuesday will also have provided Rooney with a stark reminder of his propensity to play the supporting role. During his time at Old Trafford, Cristiano Ronaldo became the undoubted star of the side and Rooney was forced to adopt roles that best allowed the Portuguese forward and the team to flourish rather than the bulldozing England forward.
In the first leg in Madrid, that is again what happened when Rooney was required to perform a disciplined role on the right flank. At least then he could argue that his versatility and team ethos was being valued. It is hard to feel any such worth when you are left out of the team entirely.
Perhaps more worryingly for Rooney, it would be hard to argue with Ferguson’s selection. Danny Welbeck was superb in crucially limiting the influence of Madrid’s Xabi Alonso, while also providing a pacey threat on the break, Nani set-up United’s goal, while Ryan Giggs was an intelligent performer in an unfamiliar position on the right. It would be a hard argument to make that United would have been better served with Rooney in the starting lineup.
In part Rooney has suffered through his willingness to sacrifice his talents for the good of the team, but the former Everton man has also failed to fulfill the potential that prompted United to make him the most expensive teenager in history.
In some ways that is harsh. Rooney is an excellent player with many qualities, but those who saw him charging through defenses single-handedly as a teenager cannot help but feel an element of disappointment when watching him almost 10 years later.
Rooney has become more functional than spectacular, which for a forward means that he does not bear comparison with the very best players in the world.
The immediate question is where does his future with Manchester United now lie. As a result of his public threat to leave the club back in 2010, Rooney now earns £250,000 a week. It is a salary that will be hard to justify for a player that cannot get into the lineup for your biggest match of the season. If Ferguson doesn’t see it that way then surely some in the United hierarchy will.
Rooney, intriguingly, will be entering the final two years of his contract come June, the point where traditionally deals are renewed or the player begins to lose value. It is why this summer will be crucial.
Rooney’s options if he is to depart Old Trafford appear few and far between.
Manchester City were the club that were strongly linked to Rooney during his last contract dispute and would likely be interested again if he became available. It is hard to imagine, though, United and Ferguson being willing to allow Rooney to go to their bitter local rivals even if he is deemed surplus to requirements.
It is another of Europe’s nouveau-riche that perhaps provides the likeliest destination. Paris Saint-Germain have been linked to Rooney more than once in recent months and would doubtless have both the desire to bring in a player who remains a global star and the money to back up their ambitions. PSG are also one of the very few clubs that would also likely be prepared to at least maintain his current salary.
Those thinking that a move remains unlikely risk underestimating the personal aspect to this tale. Ferguson is not a man to forget or take falls gladly and the veteran boss may relish being able to bring about Rooney’s exit after the player so publicly belittled both him and the club.