Wayne Rooney’s long-term Manchester United future has been placed in doubt before, but speculation surrounding the one-time teenage prodigy has perhaps never been taken more seriously than right now.
The 27-year-old’s omission from United’s Champions League second-leg defeat to Real Madrid on Tuesday sparked a whirlwind of theories.
A glance at recent history suggests this thought process may not be unwarranted – Ruud van Nistelrooy was dropped for a League Cup final shortly before his Old Trafford exit, while David Beckham was relegated to the bench against Real Madrid as his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson soured.
Rooney’s current problem at Old Trafford is a new one for him – the club’s other attacking options are finally threatening to knock him off his perch.
Robin van Persie’s arrival as United’s chief goal-getter, Shinji Kagawa as their future creative linchpin and Danny Welbeck as the tireless team-player combine to cover everything Rooney offers on the pitch.
The need for an extra man to cover these three is vital but, from Ferguson’s perspective, that need not be a player on £250,000-a-week, who carries perennial fitness concerns.
Rooney is still a class act and is at the age which should be his peak, but Ferguson recognises the need to carefully manage his resources.
The striker put in an impressive display as United brushed aside Norwich 4-0 on Saturday, but Kagawa took the plaudits for his hat-trick – the Japanese international’s breakout performance for the club.
And yet, just three days later, Ferguson was citing the striker’s need for game time as the reason he was left out of the club’s biggest match of the season.
One man about whom there are no fitness worries is Welbeck – a player who impressed above all across two legs against Real Madrid, seeing his stock rise to its highest levels yet.
The England man has taken some flak for his lack of goals this year, but he is back to his best in work rate, quick feet and turn-of-pace.
Rooney is no longer treated like a star at Old Trafford and Fergie’s selection on Tuesday was the sort of thing a manager of his ruthless nature is capable of, but others might not be.
The concept of Fabio Capello or Roy Hodgson – highly-viewed management veterans – picking Welbeck over Rooney for England’s biggest game of the season (albeit probably a decisive qualifier against Macedonia) seems farfetched.
And, were it not for a harsh red card and the weary, slack, five minutes that followed, the gaffer’s game-plan could perhaps have worked to perfection – it certainly seemed to be doing exactly that.
Whatever the fallout proves to be – a breakdown of a working relationship or the rumour mill at its best – Rooney could well be assessing his options as his contract creeps towards its conclusion.
However, the sad reality for the 27-year-old is that, despite his situation at Old Trafford, this transfer saga may come to resemble that of Carlos Tevez on the other side of Manchester.
The Argentinian’s desperation to escape the North West fell on deaf ears because, in this environment of modern wages, there are very few places a world-class talent can go.
The usual suspects will be named, but Rooney won’t fancy a big-money switch to Russia, China or the USA.
Similarly, Barcelona and Real Madrid’s interest will be non-existent and the Italian and German giants will look elsewhere for cheaper alternatives.
Ultimately, Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City will be the names on every speculator’s lips, but the impending doom of Financial Fair Play may cause even these monetary heavyweights to think twice about justifying Rooney’s quarter-of-a-million-pound per-week wage demands.
The relationship between Manchester United and Wayne Rooney appears stretched, but an amicable resolution of some sort may be preferable because, for all his quality and reputation, there could be nobody who wants him.
Picture courtesy of Sky Sports, via YouTube, with thanks.