Wayne Rooney denies that fitness concerns are behind his slump in form as the Manchester United striker went another week without scoring. Rooney contributed little during England’s scoreless match with Montenegro on Tuesday, sparking further questions over the player’s form, fitness and mental state.
If the team struggled to break down world 40th ranked Montenegrins then Rooney, as England’s creative heartbeat, barely sprung to life. Worst still, the United striker not only looked out of touch but increasingly ponderous too. All zip, spark, joie de vivre has seemingly drained from Rooney’s game this season as first the World Cup hangover and then lurid stories about his sex life hit the tabloids.
These are precisely the symptoms that Rooney has displayed in the past few months while supposedly hiding an ongoing ankle problem from his manager. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson said the striker had “not done himself justice” while playing with a “niggling ankle injury.”
“He thinks he’s fit because he always thinks he’s fit,” said Ferguson before United’s trip to Sunderland.
“And that’s the problem with the lad: he’s always too willing to play even with injuries”.
Not so claims the striker, who says he has been fit all season despite months of concern with the ankle injured against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last March. That Rooney patently and publicly contradicts his manager may not sit comfortably in Ferguson’s Carrington office of course.
“I felt sharp tonight,” Rooney said after England’s bore draw on Tuesday.
“I’ve been training for the last two months, I haven’t missed a training session. So I’ve got no problems with my fitness.
“I had a couple of chances, the first one maybe I could’ve done better. The keeper made a good save on the second one.”
Rooney may assert fitness but to take the claim at face value is to accept that the striker is as far from his best form as he ever has been. This despite Ferguson’s demand that the 24-year-old rest instead of making the trip to Sunderland last week.
The Scot also left Rooney out of United’s trips to Fulham, Everton and Valencia, in what many now believe was a show of force by United’s manager.
Against Montenegro Rooney’s contribution was limited to two shots on goal and an ungainly foul, which earned the striker a yellow card. Even as the fulcrum of England’s attack, playing about 15 yards deeper than partner Peter Crouch, Rooney found it impossible to get on the ball to any considerable effect.
When the striker did receive possession, often far deeper than necessary, the burst of acceleration that once enabled the 67-cap player to evade his marker failed to come on stream.
Rooney’s early season form and lack of goals is masked at Old Trafford by Dimitar Berbatov’s flurry of goals. Yet all strikers are judged by the goals barometer. Increasingly so in Rooney’s case with the player now permanently occupying a role further forward for United than was the case earlier in his career.
For England the goals have also dried up – save for a solitary strike against Switzerland – but the forward was at least involved in three of England’s strikes against Bulgaria in September. It proved a false dawn.
Perhaps the most pertinent question is when will the striker find some of the form of last season? Even after the intense media pressure over his sex life has died down, with his wife Colleen reportedly ready to forgive Rooney’s philandering, the player appears no nearer to a breakthrough.
On Tuesday’s evidence Rooney is far from the player that plundered 34-goals in all competitions last season. Worse, he appears in denial about it.
It’s unlikely a permanent slump of course; Rooney will star for United again but with fitness, marital and even contractual concerns ongoing there’s little doubt the player faces a tough season ahead.
Reports that Rooney has broken off talks on a new £140,000 per week contract can only serve to heighten the sense of instability surrounding the player. By next summer Rooney will have just 12 months left on his current contract, with speculation rife that Real Madrid remains interested in offering the striker a path to the Bernabeau.
With newly West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday, United supporters will expect Rooney to begin his goalscoring rehabilitation in earnest.
The player needs to, lest a dispute with his manager over fitness and a frustrating delay in contract negotiations escalate into a full-scale war.