Rooney's elite path begins at San Siro
THERE are some obvious dangers in using the opinions of journalists as gospel and, when it comes to awards, sometimes they don’t help themselves. "We won everything in 1999," Alex Ferguson likes to recall at press conferences when he feels the assembled hordes are getting a little too opinionated. "And you lot gave the player of the year to David Ginola.
Ferguson is wrong to say United won everything that year as the League Cup slipped through their grasp and it was for his triumphant performances in that competition, as well as helping Tottenham to finish 11th in the league, that Ginola was rewarded by both journalists and his fellow professionals. United’s players had to console themselves with Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League winner’s medals instead.
In Europe, however, the Ballon d’Or prize for Europe’s footballer of the year has always held more esteem with greats such as Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Marco van Basten winning the award three times to add to its credibility.
Although Michael Owen gave the award its Ginola Moment in 2001, the 96 journalists worldwide who pick their top five players are generally regarded as getting it right with Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi brooking little argument in the last three years.
In that context, the value placed on Wayne Rooney’s efforts has been interesting in the five-and-a-half years since he made his Champions League debut for Manchester United.
In that game against Fenerbahce, Rooney scored a hat-trick and, at the end of the season, he was voted the eighth best player in Europe. Alongside the same position last year, it remains as close as he has come to the top.
Given emphasis on flair in Spain, defence in Italy and power in England, there are very few players capable of earning Europe-wide approval.
Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry failed in Italy, but are consistently spoken about among the best players to play in the Premier League; the opposite is true of Hernan Crespo, Juan Veron and Andriy Shevchenko, who feature in the top 10 ‘Waste of Money’ countdowns in the Premier League yet have six Serie A titles between them and respect for their abilities everywhere outside of England.
At Barcelona, as he was with Inter Milan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is considered a thoroughbred, but, in this part of Europe, he is thought of as a prancing horse whose attitude stinks in comparison to someone like Rooney. If it ever happened, would Messi, as Ronaldo eventually did, adapt his game to blossom in the blood and thunder of the Premier League?
Or would he go the way of Robinho, who, according to former Manchester City assistant Mark Bowen, simply “wasn’t up to the physical challenge of the Premier League.”
It seems absurd to wonder whether somebody of Messi’s brilliance could make it in a league where tackles are more appreciated than skills, but, then, it’s similarly bizarre that Rooney’s talents seem to have passed by those outside of Premier League bubble.
Steven Gerrard, for example, doesn’t dive, but rather is “clever” or, if the analysts are being hard-hitting, “goes down a little easy.”
Right-wingers from Bentley to Walcott to Lennon to Wright-Phillips will be hailed for one stunning performance, disappear for two months, score and be hailed again. Or the word “massive” is used to describe everything from a last-minute winner to a throw-in.
This season, the conventional wisdom goes that Ronaldo’s departure to Real Madrid has allowed Rooney to blossom, as shown by his 21 Premier League goals, while his work-rate remains exceptionally higher than a player of his talent often shows.
For all that, however, the Champions League will be the yardstick to measure just how much United’s talisman torch has been passed from Ronaldo to Rooney.
Over the past two seasons in Europe the Ronaldo/Rooney combination has been devastating, yet when it came one person taking the limelight, a place that appeals to his narcissism, it was usually the Portuguese.
Last year, he scored four times in the knockout stages to help United reach the final including thunderbolts against Arsenal and Porto.
The previous year, as United won the trophy, he got the winner against Lyon, one in Rome and one in the final against Chelsea.
Without Ronaldo, and with Ryan Giggs missing because of injury, the onus will fall squarely on Rooney’s shoulders against AC Milan tomorrow night as the one player Milan will fear – and when Italian teams fear just one player, they usually have a simple plan for dealing with him involving the great traditions of Italian defending.
Being kicked, pulled and dragged is unlikely to produce the same kind of reaction from Rooney as it would have done in the past, but, in the cauldron of the San Siro, Milan are likely to try it just in case. Just under three years ago, Rooney scored twice against Milan at Old Trafford, although, on that night, Milan also had to worry about Ronaldo and Paul Scholes, who could move better then than he can now.
Similarly, many of Milan’s players have their best years behind them, but the likes of Ronaldinho, Nesta, Pirlo and Seedorf have been successful for so long that their names trip off the tongue when discussing Europe’s best players.
If Rooney wants to be thought of in similar company in the future, tomorrow night will be the first step in proving he belongs.