Friday 24 November 2017

Final will be defining match for Rooney

Wayne Rooney. Photo: Getty Images
Wayne Rooney. Photo: Getty Images

Frank Malley

The Champions League final is all about one man.

It is all about one player proving he is one of the best footballers ever to have played the game. It is about one player lighting up Wembley with his astute passing, his dribbling skills, his powerful shooting and his uncanny nose for goal.

Yet that player is not Lionel Messi, even if the chain of news print advising Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson how to stop the Argentinian would stretch comfortably from Wembley to Buenos Aires.

It is Wayne Rooney.

If United are to stand a chance of winning their fourth European Cup and their third Champions League trophy under Ferguson then Rooney must play the game of his life.

Of course a United team who have been criticised on a weekly basis this season for a perceived lack of quality must all do their bit. They must out-press and out-harry a Barcelona side who keep possession more effectively than any team in history.

They must retain total concentration, disrupt Barcelona's rhythm and tempo, measure caution with counter-attacking verve, defend as if their lives depended upon it. And then ride their luck.

Even so, without Rooney putting in the shift of his life it is difficult to see United emulating the feat of that heady night in 1968 when a sweat-soaked Bobby Charlton lifted the European Cup and United became the first English club to win Europe's most prized trophy.

Rooney needs such a performance every bit as much as United.

True, it is not always the great player who makes the most telling contribution. Charlton's two goals, George Best rounding the Benfica goalkeeper and Brian Kidd heading a rebound off the crossbar into the net are the abiding memories of 1968, but the most influential player by a street that night was the little-known winger John Aston, whose pace and trickery tore the Portuguese side apart.

The greatest players, however, invariably lace their careers with genius when it matters most.

So far, by such criteria, Rooney, whose potential once was compared to that of Pele by former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, has fallen short.

Too many unfortunate injuries, too much indiscipline, too many years having passed without a defining moment to crown his undoubted talent.

When you think of Zinedine Zidane you think of two goals in the 1998 World Cup final and a volleyed goal in the 2002 Champions League final which is arguably the greatest single strike in the competition's history.

Pele conjures images of Brazil in 1970 and the greatest team of all-time, Maradona the greatest World Cup goal against England in 1986 despite the 'Hand of God' debacle which preceded it. With Best you think of 1968 and with Johan Cruyff the World Cup in 1974 when he was the most creative player on the planet.

Messi might not have delivered yet in quite the same way for Argentina but for Barcelona his brilliance is as consistent as the rising of the sun.

Four goals in the Nou Camp to knock out Arsenal last year, the second goal in the final against United in Rome two years ago, 52 goals in 54 appearances so far this season, including 11 in the Champions League.

Rooney's CV of greatness is threadbare by comparison.

Indeed, the mention of his name this season mainly conjures up memories of a crass transfer request, the impertinent questioning of United's ambition and a snarling four-letter tirade down the lens of a television camera.

Rooney needs less of those moments and more akin to the wondrous bicycle-kick goal he scored against Manchester City in February.

Wembley on Saturday would be a good place to start.

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