*This piece originally featured on sport.co.uk*
His performance on Tuesday night once again had fans and pundits alike singing his praises. Wayne Rooney produced another inspired display to drive Manchester United past Schalke with a 2-0 victory in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final. It would appear that those dark days of just six months ago are well and truly behind Rooney now.
He received a barrage of criticism after his woeful World Cup and his form had clearly not improved at the start of United's current campaign. He cut a forlorn, disinterested figure before Christmas. His touch had deserted him and his characteristic hunger and aggression had all but disappeared. Following a contradiction between himself and Sir Alex Ferguson over the extent of an ankle injury he was supposed to have suffered, it was announced that Rooney wanted to leave United.
Rooney's well-publicised dip in form coincided with his even more well-publicised alleged affair with a prostitute. A scapegoat for England's World Cup failures, hounded by his once adoring United fans and top of the tabloids villain list, Rooney had a nightmare start to the season. And yet now, as Manchester United close in in another Premiership title and seem destined to make the Champions League Final at Wembley, the England striker has reached what is quite possibly the finest form of his career.
Over the past three months Wayne Rooney has been an imperious figure for his club. His goalscoring tally may not have reached the heights of his prolific record last season but his all round play has been nothing short of sensational. Whereas last season Rooney was the spearhead of the United attack, this season he has played a much deeper role, thus allowing him to become far more instrumental in all aspects of United's play.
Rooney's willingness to work for the team and his intelligence for finding space has seen him pulling the strings across the pitch. Whether he is utilised on the left wing, when Sir Alex wishes to bolster the midfield with a fifth member, or he playing just off of a main striker, Rooney has been a destructive force of late.
Since 'that volley' which won United the Manchester derby in February, Rooney has been potent in front of goal. He has only scored 14 goals in all competitions this season but these have included a decisive hat-trick against West Ham - which was followed by that notorious outburst which earned him a two match ban - and the only goal in their crucial quarter-final first-leg victory over Chelsea in the Champions League. He added another goal last night in Germany to round off what was a superb performance.
The partnership that he has formed with Javier Hernandez has undoubtedly played a big part in Rooney's renaissance, he has revelled in the energy and enthusiasm shown by United's wonder signing. The little Mexican plays on the shoulder of the last defender and constantly tests them in behind. This, in turn, keeps the defenders on the back foot and stretches the defence which enables Rooney to drop deeper into the space left behind. It is this position that gets the best out of Rooney and indeed the United team. He acts as the linchpin of the United attack, dictating the direction and tempo of the attack and dissecting the opponents.
It is the position that all England fans want to see him play. Just in 'the hole'. It is a role that optimises his clever movement, vision, passing, technique while still enabling him to be a goal threat. All of which were highlighted this week against Schalke. His resurgence in the second half of the season has been at the heart of United's push for a Premier League and Champions League double. Had he not been suspended for their FA Cup semi-final match against Manchester City then they may well have still be on track to repeat their treble winning season in 1998/99.
His passion for the game seems reignited which can be seen by his desire to be on the ball whenever possible. Towards the end of their match against Everton at the weekend Rooney dropped into a deep-lying midfield role to collect the ball from the centre-backs and begin building the play. The contrast with his lethargic performances at the start of the season could not be more stark. His turn around is not just evident on the pitch but his attitude off it has been far more relaxed.
It would, however, be unfair to pinpoint Rooney as the sole reason for United's current success. As already stated, Hernandez has proven himself to be probably the signing of the season while the likes of Giggs, Vidic, Van der Sar and even Carrick in the Champions League have all be extremely important. Nevertheless, it is Rooney who elevates United from being a good to a great team. His industry and skill completely alters the United attack when he is at his best.
'Form is temporary, class is permanent', or so the old cliché goes and Rooney is, of course, a player of the highest class. He is also a player in fantastic form. The combination of the two has been potentially decisive for United in the final third of the season. They have four games remaining in the Premier League and, as long as they see off Schalke in the second leg at Old Trafford as they are expected to do, they have two more matches left in Europe. If Rooney can carry his current, devastating form into those six matches then he may well prove to be the decisive factor in deciding where the two trophies end up this season.
Thoughts, comments and opinions please...