Heart Of Football

In a game laced with irony, Rooney could be key to Jose's revenge

Whither Wayne Rooney?

Throughout this long season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has left very little elbow room in Manchester United's attack, not just for Rooney but for the faster developing talents of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard.

Tomorrow, however, the extraordinary Swede is out of the FA Cup tie against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

The FA didn't wear the excuse by taekwondo exponent Ibrahimovic that Bournemouth's Tyrone Mings had, as the United player put it, "jumped into my elbow".

Ibrahimovic, who has scored more goals than the rest of United's strikers put together, is banned for the next three games in England. Mings is out for even longer, suspended for five games after an FA regulatory commission made the far less provable decision that the Bournemouth defender intentionally trod on the skull of the Swede as he lay on the floor.

Proving intent, where intent is expressly denied, is an expertise the FA takes upon itself. Good luck to them if that is challenged in law.

But Ibra, having tried to bluff his way out of a charge, accepted his three-game punishment without contesting it.

Could it be that the former Chelsea manager who once tried so hard to prise Rooney away from Old Trafford to the Bridge is thinking of some combination of Rooney's big-game experience and the flying feet of the youngsters?

And so the door is ajar for a relatively rare opportunity for Rooney, the United club captain and all-time record scorer, to make an appearance at the Bridge.

Rooney was not chosen to play against FC Rostov in the Europa League last Thursday, and was spared the 7,250km round trip to Russia, leaving him free to work his body at the United training ground back in Manchester.

Mourinho isn't giving his line-up away, but could it be that the former Chelsea manager who once tried so hard to prise Rooney away from Old Trafford to the Bridge is thinking of some combination of Rooney's big-game experience and the flying feet of the youngsters?

The FA Cup is not United's priority. Winning the Premier League is way off the Red Devils' radar this season. But the Europa League might just be United's passport to Europe next season. So with the Rostov tie all square at 1-1, and the second leg scheduled for next Thursday at Old Trafford, Mourinho has to think of more than one game at a time.

There is much irony afoot. It was because of the way Chelsea imploded under Mourinho last season that Roman Abramovich sacked him before Christmas 2015 - and because Chelsea failed to qualify for European competition, that they now have seven clear days to prepare for English league and Cup duties.

Boy, is Antonio Conte using that time.

Conte's Chelski, with the huge added lung power of N'Golo Kante from Leicester City in midfield, are running away with the EPL title. One of Chelsea's big statements this season was the 4-0 hammering of United at Stamford Bridge back in October.

How the home crowd taunted Mourinho, their former idol, with chants of: "You're not special any more."

The reality is that, two-thirds of the way into his first season in Manchester, Mourinho has made his team characteristically hard to beat. But they don't win against top teams, and if Ibrahimovic doesn't score, who else will?

Rashford and Martial were thought to be the future. And still they might be, if they get the chance.

There's the rub: Mr Mourinho's tactical plan, especially against big opponents, is generally to congeal the midfield and to play one main striker.

Rashford is, or was, a natural centre forward. At 19, he is getting less opportunity than he did under Louis van Gaal, and might get less in the future if United's pursuit of Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid or Dries Mertens from Napoli materialises.

Under Mourinho, Rashford and Martial and Lingard have had to take turns on the flanks, supporting the great Ibrahimovic.

Rooney, too, was told that the boss no longer sees him as a No. 9, but maybe a No. 10, playing behind the Swede. There is competition for that shirt too, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan getting the measure of English play, and with Juan Mata also a playmaker.

What has happened to diminish Rooney from the player Mourinho repeatedly tried to induce away from Old Trafford while the Portuguese was at Chelsea and at Real Madrid? Age does not explain it. Rooney is 31, Ibrahimovic is 35.

Together as a pair, they are too slow to penetrate most defences. The latter is taller, leaner, and cuter in biding his moments to strike.

Rooney's beefier, bull-like physique has been run into the ground. He started, remember, as a 16-year-old in Everton blue and was sold for £25.6 million (S$43.98 million) - a world record fee for a teenager - to United in 2004.

Since then, give or take the threats by his agent to remove him unless United gave in to his wage demands, Rooney has been synonymous with the Red Devils. If ever a player put his body on the line, playing in whatever role was asked of him, it is Rooney.

Running, sometimes, through the pain barrier on limbs crying out for rest. Running, running, running in the cause of United and of England.

The belligerence of his youth has given way, somewhat, to being the elder statesman.

However, with Ibrahimovic around, and with Michael Carrick needed in midfield, Rooney has grown into surplus.

He, or again his agent, flirted with the Chinese money on offer. The rumour mill now is of a sentimental return back to his first love, but even with new money in the boardroom, Everton are not in the league of £250,000 per week, which is on Rooney's contract until 2019.

There will, we presume, be a compromise that ships the captain out of Old Trafford at this season's end. He knows it, appears to accept it, and Rooney being Rooney will work whenever called upon to try to close his 13-year United career out with trophies.

Conte is wary of tomorrow. He describes the two Manchester clubs as having the best squads in English football. Most people see that as a clear description of Chelsea.

The club that Mourinho loved, lost, and wanted to take Rooney to. The place where, tomorrow, he picks a side intent on revenge.

Rob Hughes

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'In a game laced with irony, Rooney could be key to Jose's revenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe