The 8th installment in James Horncastle’s month-long series documenting the Battle for Manchester.
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By anyone else’s standards, scoring a couple of goals in a 4-0 win that ensures their team restored a five-point lead in a title race would ordinarily count as a fine performance. Except of course, this is Manchester United: an extraordinary club, where the pursuit of excellence means the bar is always that little bit higher. Anything less is never enough, and allowances are made for no one.
Wayne Rooney discovered this again on Sunday against Aston Villa. Replaced almost immediately after poking home his second of the afternoon, the United striker wasn’t being rewarded with an early bath, but punished for an otherwise complacent and listless display.
"He was careless," Sir Alex Ferguson bristled in his post-match press conference. "Wayne has to play on the edge of a game, when it is really close and competitive. When the game gets to that casual bit, he is worse than the rest of them. He gets really casual."
Harsh though Ferguson’s comments were given the fact Rooney is United’s most prolific player this season — he is now only a goal away from reaching George Best and Dennis Violett on the list of the club’s all-time top scorers — they were not without some justification.
Recent lapses in concentration, poor first touches, misplaced passes and questionable decision-making is the source of the United manager’s frustration with his No.10.
Rooney has been a study in contradiction at times this season. There are games in which he has been below par, but still managed to get on the score sheet and earn a result for this team. Then there have been others when he has been the best player on the park by some distance, only to fail to find the net.
And yet, Rooney has been nominated for the PFA Footballer of the Year award. He isn’t expected to win amid competition from Arsenal striker Robin van Persie, Manchester City trio Joe Hart, David Silva, Sergio Agüero and the current holder, Tottenham midfielder Scott Parker.
While that’s understandable considering the cases of each of the other candidates, and in particular van Persie, it’s worth remembering that from a personal perspective this could be Rooney’s best ever season in terms of the goals he has scored for United. Currently on 31, he is only four short of the total he achieved in 2010, and has four games in which to equal or improve upon it.
And yet even if he were to do so, it’s the memories of his brilliant displays throughout that campaign two years ago, which was so cruelly disrupted by a metatarsal fracture suffered in a Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich, that are likely to live longer as his best in a United shirt than those this season.
To his credit, Rooney acknowledges and does not dispute the claims that he hasn’t been meeting expectations of late. "It was nice to score two goals," he said, "but I didn’t think my performance [against Villa] was good enough. The rest of my play wasn’t great. I am disappointed with that and I will be working hard to put it right."
For all Rooney’s self-criticism, Ferguson will also be pleased to hear that his message has been received loud and clear. The relationship between player and manager has been strained before, and while there’s a temptation to suggest that there’s still a lingering resentment between the pair dating back to a stand-off in 2010 which flared up again after Boxing Day 2011, this latest incident is arguably nothing more than Ferguson shaking Rooney back to his senses as the season draws to its climax.
If United inflict defeat on Everton at Old Trafford on Sunday, they can then guarantee a 20th league title by beating City the following weekend. That’s easier said than done. Everton are a tough opponent to crack, even if they haven’t won in this part of Manchester since 1992. It took United 84 minutes to break the deadlock in this fixture last season.
As always, facing his former club will be an emotionally charged occasion for Rooney. The adrenalin will be pumping and maybe that might lead him to regain his sharpness ahead of the derby. But if he doesn’t throw off the rust in time, United fans aren’t likely to be too concerned. As long as he keeps scoring decisive title-clinching goals from now until the end of the season, be they scrappy or sliced, the rest simply doesn’t matter.