Time for Wayne Rooney to deliver on the Champions League stage
Not since Wayne Rooney's debut for Manchester United against Fenerbahce in September 2004 has the England forward claimed centre stage in a Champions League fixture
Published 19/03/2014 | 15:17
Wayne Rooney could deliver a career-defining performance for Manchester United against Olympiakos tonight, one which would be just as important for his legacy as for his embattled manager, David Moyes.
As United's highest-paid player, one in whom Moyes has placed so much faith and trust, there is little doubt that the time has come for Rooney to deliver in the Champions League.
If he doesn't do it tonight, who knows when he will next get the opportunity to make his mark in football's greatest club competition?
There is a surprise statistic about Rooney which shows that he is Britain's all-time leading goalscorer in the Champions League.
Not Steven Gerrard or Ryan Giggs or Andy Cole. Not Frank Lampard either, but Rooney, with 29 goals during 10 seasons in the competition with United.
Yet throughout his decade in the Champions League, how many times has the United forward delivered the kind of iconic performance that elevated the likes of Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and Roy Keane into the pantheon of Old Trafford greats?
Not since Rooney's United debut against Fenerbahce in September 2004, when the then 18 year-old scored a hat-trick in a 6-2 victory, has the England forward claimed centre stage in a Champions League fixture.
There could be an argument for his two-goal performance in United's 3-2 win against AC Milan in the San Siro in February 2010, but while it was good, it was hardly up there with the night George Best became 'El Beatle' with a mesmerising display to inspire a 5-1 victory against Benfica in Lisbon in 1966.
In recent seasons, when United needed Rooney to drag them out of the mire in Europe, he simply failed to deliver.
He did not perform as United slipped out at the group stage with a defeat against Basle in December 2011, he failed to elevate Sir Alex Ferguson's team in two losing Champions League finals against Barcelona and was also subdued against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu last season before being dropped to the bench for the second-leg at Old Trafford.
As a result, Rooney goes into tonight's round of 16 second-leg against Olympiakos still searching for a performance in Europe that will ensure his place in United's European history books.
Friday is the 13th anniversary of the night when Robson secured his 'Captain Marvel' tag by scoring twice in a 3-0 European Cup-Winners' Cup victory against Barcelona at Old Trafford and supporters still talk about that game, and Robson's impact, three decades on.
Mention Keane's name and his performance against Juventus in Turin in 1999, when he shrugged off a first-half booking that would rule him out of the final to inspire United to a 3-2 victory, remains the defining night of the Irishman's career.
Hughes was also regarded as a big-game player at United and his Old Trafford career will always pivot around his two goals in the Cup-Winners' Cup Final victory against Barcelona in Rotterdam in 1991.
At Liverpool, Gerrard can point to match-winning performances against Olympiakos and AC Milan during the 2005 Champions League winning campaign as his stellar displays in the competition.
But it is an indictment on Rooney that, if he were to retire to tomorrow, his best performance in the Champions League would be his very first - as a prodigious teenager with so many great nights ahead of him.
Domestically, there have been plenty. Outstanding goals against Manchester City and games when he has delivered crucial contributions towards Premier League title successes.
But for a player with such a lofty reputation across the globe, the Champions League remains an itch that needs to be scratched.
Rooney admitted in Athens last month, prior to the 2-0 first-leg defeat against Olympiakos which leaves United with a mountain to climb tonight, that his one Champions League victory, in 2008, was not enough to satisfy him.
With his 29th birthday approaching this autumn, and United needing to win the competition this season to play in it in the next campaign, time is not on Rooney's side to claim a second winners' medal.
But if he can emulate the likes of Best, Robson, Hughes and Keane tonight by hauling United to a remarkable victory, he will keep his hopes alive and also fill a missing part of his jigsaw.
The time has come for Rooney to own the Champions League stage again.