Rooney relishing title run-in
Wayne Rooney is looking forward to the Premier League title run-in after his sensational hat-trick in Manchester United's 4-2 win at West Ham.
Rooney said "our season starts now" after firing United clear at the top of the table.
He was talking about United as a team but he could just as easily have been referring to himself after rediscovering his peak form almost a year to the day after it all started going so badly wrong for the striker.
The 25-year-old England striker was on fire at this point last season, scoring 35 times in just 46 matches for club and country before injury struck in United's Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich.
He was never the same again for the remainder of 2010, enduring a miserable World Cup, unseemly revelations about his private life and a run of only three goals in 28 games.
But the turn of the year seemed to rejuvenate Rooney and signs he was slowly getting back to his best began to emerge.
Vital strikes against West Brom and Aston Villa were followed by his jaw-dropping overhead kick in the Manchester derby, but even that was arguably eclipsed by his virtuoso 14-minute treble at West Ham on Saturday.
His 99th, 100th and 101st Premier League goals for United almost single-handedly turned a 2-0 defeat, which would have opened the door for Arsenal and Chelsea, into a 4-2 victory that appeared to drain all confidence from their title rivals and left Sir Alex Ferguson's men a clear run at a record-breaking 19th championship.
Ferguson called it "a championship-winning performance" - the latest in a long line of turnarounds that has become one of the hallmarks of his reign, never more so than this season.
Indeed, United have been 2-0 down to Villa, Blackpool and West Ham and have taken seven points.
Arsene Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti will doubtless deny it but Rooney himself admitted witnessing those kinds of comebacks had a demoralising effect on rival players.
He told MUTV: "A few years ago, when Chelsea won the league, they seemed to keep doing that.
"They would be losing. Then, when we had finished the warm-up, they had won the game."
Rooney insisted his foul-mouthed tirade at a television camera after completing his hat-trick was not directed at anyone in particular, but Arsenal and Chelsea certainly got the message.
Now seven and 11 points adrift, respectively - albeit with a match in hand each and United still to play - the game is almost up for the London duo.
Rooney could smell the finishing line, saying: "Big games keep coming but you live for games like these.
"In some ways, we have to say our season starts now.
"We have seven more league games - four at home. Our home form has been brilliant.
"It is a great challenge for us and something all the players are looking forward to."
United's victory on Saturday arguably owed as much to luck as to Rooney and their sheer bloody-mindedness.
Returning captain Nemanja Vidic could easily have been sent off while it was still 2-0 and the penalty award which allowed Rooney to complete his hat-trick was debatable.
West Ham midfielder Gary O'Neil claimed Vidic should have walked - more for persistent yellow card offences than for a straight red for hauling back Demba Ba.
Asked if the Hammers would have held on against 10 men, O'Neil said: "Yeah, I would've thought so. It makes it easier to hold on, obviously.
"But I think the main difference was the changes they made. They were positive changes.
"They didn't cause us too many problems in behind, first half, but as soon as (Javier) Hernandez came on and they brought (Dimitar) Berbatov on as well, it made a massive difference."
Defeat dragged West Ham back into the drop zone and later results also went badly against them.
O'Neil said: "If we'd have done okay and lost 1-0, everyone would have just said, 'That was Man United'.
"Because we were 2-0 up, it makes it feel that little bit harder to take.
"But we've got some big games coming up.
"We'll be ready for Bolton away next weekend and it's a game we fancy getting something from."