Manchester United say talk of Wayne Rooney leaving Old Trafford is "nonsense" – but the reality is that the forward may well leave in January.
United’s reaction to Sunday morning’s newspaper suggestions that Rooney could be on his way was swift.
"To suggest Wayne Rooney will be sold in January is nonsense," said a club spokesman.
But Red Devils officials are understood to have been informed that Rooney will not sign a new contract, and therefore may have little option other than to cash in on their most valuable asset.
There has been plenty of speculation about Sir Alex Ferguson’s relationship with his star striker since stories about the 24-year-old’s private life first surfaced at the beginning of last month.
Rooney appeared to make a direct challenge to Ferguson’s authority on Tuesday after England’s Euro 2012 qualifier with Montenegro, when he went out of his way to contradict the Scot’s claim that he has been suffering from an ankle injury.
Ferguson has so far avoided any meaningful public discussion about Rooney’s situation but appeared to deliver his own verdict when he left the forward out of his starting line-up for Saturday’s Premier League encounter with West Brom, then brought him on as a substitute with 19 minutes remaining and told him to play on the left wing.
Although it was interpreted as the final straw by some, Rooney’s relationship with Ferguson soured some time ago.
Talks over a new contract have stalled and there is no intention from the player’s side to re-open negotiations.
It will come as a shock to many observers to discover the extent and speed of the breakdown, given it was only last season that Rooney scored 34 goals for his club.
Even though Rooney’s form this season has been well below his normal high standards – his only goal, against West Ham in August, came from the penalty spot – he remains a crowd favourite.
United do have the option of sitting tight and hoping for a thaw in relations.
However, they are acutely aware Rooney’s value will plummet if he does not leave in January and 12 months after that he would be free to sign pre-contract terms with any club on the continent, and leave on a Bosman free transfer in the summer of 2012.
The Glazer family are unlikely to be keen on that idea, which is why the prospect of Rooney leaving midway through the current campaign has taken hold.
Although there are plenty of examples that can be used of United prospering after releasing top players – Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy are obvious examples – with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Edwin van der Sar and Gary Neville all approaching the end of their careers, it would certainly test the claim of chief executive David Gill that Ferguson has a sizeable transfer budget at his disposal despite the club’s massive debts.
With most managers in their late 60s, questions would also be asked about the desire to rebuild another team. Yet for Ferguson, it is the type of challenge he relishes and few doubt he is capable of keeping United competitive at the highest level providing he is given sufficient funds.
If there is an acceptance that Rooney is leaving, Gill will concentrate on getting the highest possible fee, having succeeded in prizing a world record £80million out of Real Madrid for Cristiano Ronaldo last summer.
Real would doubtless be interested in Rooney, although the same could be said for virtually every top side in Europe, including Manchester City, which would be an unpalatable thought to the Old Trafford faithful.
There has been some speculation about United interest in Fernando Torres, whose form dip at Liverpool mirrors that of Rooney 35 miles down the East Lancashire Road.
In the meantime, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Michael Owen – who missed yesterday’s game with a groin injury – will be asked to shoulder the burden, with Ferguson to decide what role Rooney is to play given his stated position.
The United boss is due to address the media on Tuesday, prior to his side’s Champions League encounter with Bursaspor at Old Trafford, which should be fascinating.
In the meantime, the Red Devils need to try and pick themselves up from the loss of another two goal lead – and another two points – yesterday that keeps them five points adrift of champions Chelsea.
"We need to be more angry," said defender Patrice Evra, whose unfortunate own goal sparked the Baggies recovery after they had fallen behind to first-half strikes from Javier Hernandez and Nani.
United’s victory hopes disappeared due to a rare mistake from Edwin van der Sar. He dropped Chris Brunt’s steepling cross allowing Somen Tchoyi to tap home as the hosts surrendered a two-goal lead for the third time this season.
Evra said: "For this to happen once (at Everton) is OK. Then I did the same interview after the Liverpool match and said I hope we never do it again. But we have done.
"We have two choices – either we accept it or we don’t.
"We have to show the correct face of Manchester United. We have to show character and personality."