Rooney woes a smokescreen for United's failings
Manchester Utd 2
West Brom 2
Wayne Rooney ought to consider a second career as a painter and decorator because mere mention of his name alone is doing a wonderful job of papering over the cracks at Manchester United.
Although United dismissed as "nonsense" reports that the 24-year-old would be sold in January because of the "irretrievable breakdown" of his relationship with Alex Ferguson, suggesting that all is well in Wayne's world would be folly, considering that he was not required to start Saturday's costly draw against West Bromwich Albion.
Rooney, damaged goods as a brand since his name was muddied by allegations of liaisons with prostitutes last month, is also not quite the player he was when his 34 goals in all competitions earned him both the PFA and Football Writers' player of the year awards last season.
But his continuing omission from Ferguson's starting XI remains a headline story. Until he reclaims his previous distinction as being the first name on the teamsheet, Rooney will continue to be a distraction for the United manager.
The same applies to Rooney's future. Contract talks aimed at the final 21 months of his current deal have made little progress, but the forward's off-field issues -- and the resolution of a court case brought by his former representatives -- have shifted the focus of Rooney's advisers in recent weeks.
Sources close to Rooney suggested, somewhat vaguely, over the weekend that his situation would be resolved "soon enough," and the player himself cut a relaxed figure as he honoured the filming requirements of his sponsors following the game on Saturday evening before waving to fans while holding his son, Kai, in an Old Trafford executive box.
Yet rather than scoring the goals to fuel United's title ambitions, Rooney is now serving another purpose for United. He is deflecting the focus from the defensive problems and worrying lack of quality which are combining to leave Ferguson's team way off the title pace.
United did not throw away victory against West Brom because Rooney was on the bench. By half-time, Ferguson's decision not to select him appeared wholly justified as a 2-0 lead, which should have been 5-0, gave the home side a platform to secure a routine victory.
But wasteful finishing -- take a bow Dimitar Berbatov and Nani -- and shoddy defending not only paved the way for West Brom to snatch a point, it almost led to Roberto di Matteo's team claiming all three.
First-half goals by Javier Hernandez and Nani, prior to Ryan Giggs's departure with a hamstring injury, were cancelled out by second-half replies from Somen Tchoyi and a Patrice Evra own goal, before Rooney was introduced after 71 minutes and immediately dispatched to the left-wing.
United should have been out of sight before Rooney's introduction, however. Yet considering his form this season, it is debatable whether he would have converted the chances missed by Berbatov and Nani.
It would also be ludicrous to suggest that Edwin van der Sar would not have fumbled the ball into Tchoyi's path for West Brom's equaliser had Rooney been on the pitch from the start.
United's problems go beyond Ferguson and Rooney's draining battle of wills. Defensively, they are naive, with Rafael da Silva regressing rather than progressing. Evra, a stellar performer last season, is a shadow of his former self.
Goals are being conceded at an alarming rate, both "inexplicable" and "not good enough" according to Ferguson, while in midfield, there is something of the Emperor's new clothes about Anderson, who is not in the same league as the dominant, but rested, Darren Fletcher.
With Giggs facing up to a month on the sidelines and Paul Scholes unable to play three games a week, United's search for inspiration falls directly on to Rooney's shoulders. That in itself is a problem too.
But all of those issues are overshadowed by the big ones of Rooney's form and future. The last star striker to endure a form slump after falling foul of Ferguson was Ruud van Nistelrooy and, despite 150 goals in 219 appearances, he was ruthlessly dispatched to Real Madrid against the wishes of the supporters.
Back then, Ferguson had the blossoming talents of Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo in place to claim Van Nistelrooy's mantle.
Four years on, it is a different story, which is why selling Rooney would be an altogether different decision for the manager to make. (© Daily Telegraph, London)