United golden boy Wayne Rooney ready to shine against Real
Just as his selfless pass for the second of Shinji Kagawa's three goals against Norwich threatened to offer further evidence of his demotion to a supporting role at Manchester United, a ferocious swing of his right foot served as a reminder that Wayne Rooney is still capable of the spectacular.
It has been a while in coming. A combination of Robin van Persie's match-winning presence, the emergence of Kagawa and Tom Cleverley and Rooney's own battle for form and fitness this season have ensured that the one-time golden boy of Old Trafford must now fight for his place.
Yet with Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo due in town tomorrow, Rooney's stunning 35-yard strike, which completed United's rout of Norwich at Old Trafford, gave a glimpse of the destructive brilliance that continues to mark him out as English football's biggest talent.
It is a talent that has too often failed to shine on the big stage, though.
The elephant in the room when Rooney is at the heart of the discussion is his repeated failure to make a difference when it matters, not just for England, but increasingly for United.
Aside from two goals against AC Milan at the San Siro three years ago and one against Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final defeat at Wembley, the highlight of Rooney's European career with United came on his debut – almost nine years ago, and a hat-trick against Fenerbahce.
Rooney has yet to do what George Best did against Benfica in 1966, or go close to emulating Bryan Robson and Roy Keane against Barcelona (1984) and Juventus (1999) respectively by delivering a career-defining performance against the very best opponents.
The Real game offers the 27-year-old that opportunity and Rooney concedes that the time has come for him to show his best.
"The age I'm at now is the time when most players start to peak – from now and across the next four or five years. Hopefully, that will be the case and the team will benefit from that," the 27-year-old said.
"I haven't played as many games as I normally would have at this point in the season and I do feel fresh and ready for that battle until the end of the season.
"With the way the manager rotates the team, there will be a lot of players who are feeling fresh as well.
"Some teams tend to field the same team every week and when you get towards the end of the season you can lose the sharpness because of it. We should definitely be well prepared.
"It's been a bit of a stop-start season for me, with a couple of injuries, which has been a bit disappointing. I just want to keep myself fit until the end of the season now and play a part in as many games as I can to help the team to be successful."
The landmark of 200 Manchester United goals is only five away for Rooney, whose difficulties have been compounded by the fact that it can take two or three games for him to hit full form after injury.
"It's great to have played so many games (353) for this club at such a young age and it would be nice to get to that 200 mark," added Rooney. "It would be an achievement I'd be proud of and, hopefully, I can get there between now and the end of the season."
His limited starts – 16 in the Premier League – leave Rooney nine short of Ferguson's 25-goal target, but he is bullish about the prospects of hitting it.
"Yes, of course I can," he said. "It's great for us to have so many forwards who can play well and score goals."
Rooney's goal against Norwich could be a taster for greater things against Real; it may prove a false dawn, but the stage is set for the United forward to produce the performance which will carry Alex Ferguson's team into the quarter-finals.
Kagawa, who struggled to influence the game in the Bernabeu before being substituted, became the first Asian to score a Premier League hat-trick by inspiring the win against Chris Hughton's charges.
His first, on the stroke of half-time, broke Norwich's resistance and gave United the platform on which to build their commanding victory, which stretched their lead at the top of the Premier League to 15 points.
Kagawa's second was purely down to Rooney, who eschewed the chance to shoot from six yards in favour of rolling a pass for the former Borussia Dortmund player to guide into the net.
The hat-trick goal, a deft chip over goalkeeper Mark Bunn embellished Kagawa's achievement, but it was Rooney's strike that stole the show.
Nothing appeared to be on for Rooney, but he spotted Bunn's slight move away from his goal-line and unleashed a dipping shot from 35 yards to claim his first goal in almost a month.
"That will do Wayne and his confidence good," beamed Ferguson.
Ferguson has said he was "shocked" by Madrid's standards in their midweek Copa del Rey win over Barcelona and Michael Carrick agreed that it had provided a sense of what the Premier League leaders are up against.
"It's not very often teams go to the Nou Camp and come away with a scoreline like that," said the midfielder. "They played some textbook counter-attacking football in many ways, absorbed the possession Barcelona had and hit them on the break. That's Madrid's strength.
"With the players they have, and the spaces other teams leave, that's what we'll have to try to counteract." (© Daily Telegraph, London)