Wayne Rooney: Ready to hit even greater heights
Wayne Rooney is not the new Pele, whatever last week's headlines made it appear Alex Ferguson had said.
What the Manchester United manager did say was in response to the Benfica coach's suggestion that Rooney was like a South American striker, and Ferguson even disagreed with that. "He's a typical British player," he said, somewhat mystified by Jorge Jesus' remarks.
"But if you look at Pele, for instance, he was a very aggressive attacker who could also look after himself, and so can Rooney. There are similarities in terms of strength, speed and determination."
Let's hear it, then, for all the other typically British attackers who by virtue of being aggressive and able to look after themselves must also be a bit like Pele: Alan Shearer, Mark Hughes and Kevin Davies, for starters.
All right, perhaps not Davies, though it is hardly the Bolton player's fault that most Premier League lines are led by foreign imports.
That is one reason why Rooney stands out. He is the main man for United and England, as synonymous with his country's brand of football as Bobby Charlton in his pomp.
He may not be as jaw-droppingly inventive as Pele, and he is extremely unlikely to end up with anything like the same World Cup haul, though it is important to remember that the brilliant Brazilian's fame was based almost exclusively on his World Cup performances. Every four years he would come round like a comet, then for the most part disappear from European view.
Rooney's career to date has been just the opposite. A long list of medals and astounding success at club level interspersed with anticlimactic World Cup campaigns where expectation has far exceeded achievement.
However, and this is the area in which Rooney's contribution to the game may eventually stand comparison with Pele's, the United player may not yet be halfway through his career. At 25, he has been around for what seems longer than nine years, and without even assuming the longevity of Ryan Giggs, it is possible to suppose he can continue at a high level for at least that long again.
"It's funny," Ferguson says. "In terms of the group Wayne is now a senior player. If you can see a new maturity in him that's probably why. He's older than most of the players around him and much more experienced. But he's only 25. So he's still a young player with a lot ahead of him."
John Terry, leader of a Chelsea team who mostly have to think hard to recall their mid-20s, was saying exactly the same thing a couple of weeks ago, pointing out that Rooney could have another 10 years with England left in him. If that is true, and it does not seem unreasonable, he could certainly last that long with United.
Almost exactly a year ago that would have appeared a dangerously large assumption: Rooney's private life was on the front pages, he was at odds with his manager over the extent of an ankle injury, had just been left out of the United side at the cost of dropped points in a 3-3 draw at Everton and was about to tell his club that they could not rely on him signing a new contract. But if United ended up caving in to his wage demands and going out of their way to keep him happy, there is a feeling they are about to be rewarded by one of his most prolific and convincing seasons.
Two hat-tricks already in a season only four games old is quite a start, and even if the 8-2 result against Arsenal was freakish and the 5-0 rout of Bolton evidence that Owen Coyle may be in for an uncomfortable season at the Reebok, the way Rooney and Javier Hernandez tormented the England centre-half Gary Cahill suggested they could do the same to just about anybody.
Ferguson is likely to start the pair in tandem against Chelsea this afternoon, after only bringing Hernandez on in the closing stages of the 1-1 draw in Lisbon in midweek. The United manager claimed he would not mind losing at home to his biggest rivals as long as he could win all the other games and still finish champions, though that is not how he tends to set out his sides.
Though United are more familiar with Chelsea than any Premier League opponents, the visitors are to some degree an unknown quantity under Andre Villas-Boas, and Ferguson is not about to gift the new boy an easy start.
Everyone at United and Chelsea still remembers the last time a relatively unknown Portuguese coach made a name for himself with an unexpected result at Old Trafford, though what Ferguson remembers most about Jose Mourinho's Porto knocking the home side out of the Champions League in 2004 is that a legitimate Paul Scholes goal was chalked off for offside.
"The new coach Boas has started very well for a young man that has come to Chelsea, it's a great challenge, it's a hard challenge at his age but he seems to have acquitted himself very well and his team have responded," said Ferguson.
"There are similarities when I came from Aberdeen, I had achieved something (Scottish league title), so that helped me and the same for Boas, he won the double (with Porto) last year."
Villas-Boas will be greeted by United's strongest side, and while the inclusion of Antonio Valencia, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-sung in Lisbon gives Ferguson options other than Ashley Young and Nani for wide midfield, there is little doubt that Rooney and Hernandez constitute the first-choice attacking partnership. Or that David de Gea will return in goal, a subject on which Ferguson has been most insistent all week.
"There is clearly a media agenda over our goalkeeping situation," he says. "It is as if everyone is desperate for the boy to fail. Anders [Lindegaard] was always going to get his chance, he has been patient and he did well. But De Gea has done well, too.
"Apart from his goalkeeping ability, David's use of the ball on the floor is terrific too. We've almost got a sweeper there and that's a fantastic asset. If you look at the stats from the Bolton game, his passes started seven attacks that ended up in their penalty box."
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