Rooney must raise the bar upon his injury return

Wayne Rooney, Manchester UnitedThe Barclays Premier League may only be a couple of weeks old, but even by the notoriously fickle standards of our fabled top flight, we haven’t half heard some wild conclusions already. After two games, Andre Villas-Boas’ project is apparently already doomed to failure, Arsenal are set to become the first English team to finish a season goalless and Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United future is up the swanny.

Now while the above can be said for the most part with tongue firmly in cheek, it appears that a few people have given some serious credence to a perceived degradation to Rooney’s United career. In fact, the whispers and speculation have become so prominent in the last few days, that the man himself has had to come out and reassure fans his future lies at Old Trafford.

How could a man who scored 35 goals in all competitions for the Red Devils last season and someone widely regarded to be one of the best forwards in Europe, possibly be consigned to the scrapheap after the first two games of the season?

On paper, it seems to be verging on the absurd and in reality; it appears pretty far-fetched as well. But football isn’t as simple as black and white or facts and figures. As the 26-year-old faces at least a month out after his gory leg gash against Fulham, there is every chance that it could turn out to be a bigger blow for the player than it could be for his club.

This summer has seen, in some ways, history repeat itself for the nation’s most talented footballer. Not for the first time, Wayne Rooney found himself heading into a major tournament on the back of a superb goal scoring season. Rooney scored 27 league goals last term, one more than his pre-World Cup 2010 haul, to find himself heading into Euro 2012 with the weight of serious expectation upon his shoulders. This is the national team of course – it was never going to be any different.

And as in 2010, Rooney duly failed to live up to the burden of expectation, even if it was in slightly different circumstances to the farcical performances in South Africa. Suspended for the first two games, Rooney came into Roy Hodgson’s set-up woefully short of match fitness and seemed to be visibly blowing after half an hour against Ukraine in the final group game. Two consecutive tournaments, two consecutively poor Rooney showings.

But concerningly for Manchester United, that’s not where history has stopped repeating itself. After his World Cup disaster, Rooney endured a nightmare return to domestic football. A whole array of issues, including revelations about his private life, an ankle injury and that contract debacle, affected his form. But he still seemed to be lacking fitness and match sharpness in abundance. It wasn’t the Rooney of the season before. How much you contribute that to conflicting factors is arguable, but he seemed to have trouble adapting back after the World Cup.

So you can imagine Sir Alex Ferguson was mortified when he saw Rooney’s showing against Barcelona in their pre-season friendly at the start of the month. Rooney missed a penalty that wouldn’t have gone down particularly well, but he again looked well short of match fitness – in August. Rooney had sat out the bulk of United’s pre-season preparations as he was supposed to be undergoing an intense, in-house fitness regime at Carrington. No one is claiming United’s fitness staff haven’t been up to the task, but something seems to have gone wrong down the line.

Consequently, his nasty injury at Fulham last Saturday could not have come at a worse time. The only way he can regain sharpness and form is with long, hard game-time, of which he seemed to be in dire need of. Spending anything from four to a possibly touted eight weeks on the sidelines is an absolute nightmare for Rooney. If he really was behind in pre-season, then he is going to have to put in a monumental shift during his rehabilitation this time round.

But it’s here that we get into uncharted territory for Rooney and Manchester United. Because for the first time in his career, there is a genuine chance that he will have to battle to get back into the first team line up.

You can always make wild assumptions from 120 minutes of football, but few would argue that Manchester United have looked a far better prospect when Rooney has been off the pitch for them, rather than on it. It’s not rocket science to work out why, either.

When you invest £24million in a striker, as Fergie did in Robin van Persie, you tend to play him. When that man scored 37 goals in all competitions last year, you definitely play him. And when he links up as tantalizingly as he has done  with fellow new boy Shinji Kagawa, you don’t look elsewhere. Including to Wayne Rooney. Ferguson took the bold move of dropping Rooney after his sub-standard showing in the 1-0 defeat to Everton, in favour of his new Dutch and Japanese additions. The fact is, even if Rooney hadn’t got injured during the weekend, he’d probably be back on the bench for this weekend’s trip to Southampton.

Equally, as much as we are reading a lot into Rooney’s tentative minutes on a football pitch this season, we are also reading more than enough into Van Persie and Kagawa’s time in United shirts. They are both class and acts and surely have wonderful seasons ahead of them this term. But regardless of why that is, Rooney cannot be fully judged until he’s been given the chance to try and shine with the pair fully fit. The problem is, that if they push on like many expect them too, he could struggle to find the chance.

Many are quick to bash Rooney with his often-disappointing exploits for his country but he remains a class act for Manchester United. And if anyone is going to be able to hold their own and fight back from adversity, it will be Rooney. But this United team appears to be evolving. We’ve seen flashpoints of a new, seemingly more mobile and fluid Manchester United side. Quite how Rooney, Kagawa and Van Persie can co-exist in the same team, remains to be seen. One things for sure, if the newly signed duo fire United to the top of the table in Rooney’s absence, he is going to be under real pressure to perform when he gets his chance.

It’s going to be hugely interesting to see how this United team shapes up and exists when Rooney does return. It seems uneasy and wide of the mark to even speculate about his possible departure as many are currently indulging in at the moment. But if he does face a fight to get back into the starting XI again, he’s going to have to get his head down and worker harder than he arguably ever has before. Certainly harder than what we’ve seen since the end of last term, anyway.

How do you view Rooney’s role in this new look Manchester United team? Does he need to raise his game or is it all a load of overblown nonsense? Tell me what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me your views.