Revitalised Rooney sets Messi as his benchmark
Americans love a label and there are few more overused phrases Stateside than the 'Comeback Kid', so Wayne Rooney ought to feel at home as he reflects on the Seattle hat-trick which suggested that the Manchester United forward is determined to avoid a repeat of last year's early-season difficulties.
Twelve months ago, Rooney remained at home as United toured the US in pre-season, licking his wounds following a dismal World Cup and preparing to enter the most turbulent period of his career, with injury, loss of form, lurid off-field revelations and a divisive contract stand-off all ultimately combining to send the 25-year-old off the rails.
Not until the turn of the year, when his first goal from open play for almost nine months -- at West Brom on January 1 -- proved a cathartic moment, did Rooney finally begin to resemble the player that had dominated the domestic and European landscape prior to the World Cup.
Yet despite ending last season with 16 goals in all competitions, including one in the Champions League final defeat against Barcelona, the 2010-11 campaign proved one to forget for Rooney.
But with the new season just three weeks away, Rooney appears leaner, sharper and fitter than ever before on the five-game tour of the US.
Against the Seattle Sounders, Rooney's 21-minute hat-trick as a second-half substitute propelled United to a 7-0 victory and he admits that he expects to take his game to a new level this season, even targeting Barcelona's Lionel Messi as his benchmark.
"Messi is a great player and rightly World Player of the Year," Rooney said. "I think not just for me, but for every footballer out there, that's the target you want to try to get to and hopefully I can do that. I'm a player who wants to do well all the time and I know I can always improve, so if I keep working and practising, I can do that.
"I don't set targets for myself, but it would be nice if I can get through the season injury free. That would be a big boost for me."
Rooney's tortuous start to last season was barely helped by his disrupted pre-season campaign, but he admits that he is benefiting from being involved in this year's preparation work in the US.
United's players have been put through double sessions by the club's fitness team and they head to Chicago with searing temperatures approaching 100 degrees threatening to intensify the physical demands on Rooney and his team-mates.
But the England forward insists that the work being done in the US will prove invaluable this season.
"It's always a big thing to get your pre-season under your belt because that's the main bulk of the work you get to do," Rooney said. "We have trained very hard this week and we're looking forward to all the games and, if you look around our dressing-room now, it's all of a sudden gone a lot younger.
"There are young players coming into the team now who have that desire and hunger to win trophies. We're just excited to see what next season brings."
The new campaign will pose two challenges for United. Firstly, to retain the league title and secondly, to attempt to close the gap on Barcelona, United's conquerors in two Champions League finals over the past three seasons.
And Rooney admits that, domestically, Ferguson's players are expecting a congested battle for the Premier League title. "The main threat is going to be from Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City. One of them, plus us, will be fighting for the title," he said.
"City have obviously got a lot of good players now and they had a big push towards the end of last season, but I think Liverpool will challenge this time.
"They have made some really good signings, British players, and under Kenny Dalglish I'm sure they will be fighting harder than they ever have done to be up there. They will think they have a chance of winning the title."
Despite the imminent arrival of a new season, however, the shadow of Barcelona -- who United face in Washington next week -- continues to hang over the club, but Rooney insists that Ferguson's squad have moved on from the defeat at Wembley.
"It's a long time ago now for us," he said. "I think you have to put it behind you. I still think it was a great achievement by us to get to the final, but obviously you want to win when you get there. They were better than us, though, so you have to hold your hands up to that, but it's always disappointing when you lose in competitions.
"We just want to do our best, try to retain the title and go that one step further in the Champions League.
"Barcelona have their style of play and we play differently. Not everyone can play the way they do, but they have their identity and we have our own.
"Full credit to them, they were a much better team than us on the day and deserved the win, but we're looking forward to the new season now and are trying to put that behind us to concentrate on what's ahead." (© Daily Telegraph, London)