Angry, ruthless and, above all, decisive – this is the Wayne Rooney that Manchester United have been missing.
The club captain responded to a difficult week – several weeks, in fact – to help his side dismantle Feyenoord 4-0 and keep their Europa League campaign very much alive.
Poor form and a handful of unfortunate pictures had Rooney back in the headlines during the international break and prompted something seldom seen since his younger days: a fiery retort.
“It’s not finished yet,” he insisted. “I think what’s been going on is disgraceful. It shows a lack of respect and I think enough to enough. That’s all I want to say.”
The outburst was unexpected for the modern Rooney, but on the evidence of Thursday, it was a welcome one.
The man on the brink of becoming United’s greatest goalscorer, whose career prime was fuelled by a ferocity never far from the surface, had seemed to have accepted his stark decline in far too meek and mild a manner. His frustration with the media, misplaced or not, showed he’s still happy to give his doubters a kicking.
Expecting Rooney to recapture his best would be folly, but on this showing, he certainly has something to offer this developing team. Some terrific early link-up play with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic offered promise, but his goal – following a quiet spell – was a flashback to his rampages of old.
Charging down the left flank, he squared to Ibrahimovic in space before racing to meet the return pass and chipping cheekily over Brad Jones.
The goal took him to 39 in Europe, one above United record-holder Ruud van Nistelrooy, and moved him to within one of Bobby Charlton’s club best of 249.
United have been stung twice in recent weeks by late Old Trafford equalisers and they started the second half determined to avoid a repeat. Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba both came close, but it was the captain’s brilliance that killed off the game, as he played a fine disguised pass into Juan Mata’s path for a simple finish.
Jose Mourinho must have liked what he saw, especially after he assured fans in his programme notes that United are “building” towards the kind of form – and results – that Old Trafford demands.
He constructed a side here that many in the Stretford End and beyond would consider to be the finest at his disposal, excluding Sergio Romero in goal. Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Daley Blind and Luke Shaw looks the best back four available right now; an attacking five of Paul Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Mata and Ibrahimovic – all ahead of Michael Carrick – would seem to tick every box for a manager who wants skill and efficiency throughout the final third.
Mkhitaryan deserves special mention. He had been promised a starting spot under a cloud of expectation – especially given how poor he was as a substitute in Istanbul – but he did not disappoint. A brilliant one-two with Rooney almost allowed him to open the scoring and set the tone for a hard-working yet creative display that offered a fair few glimpses of the sensational form he hit for Borussia Dortmund.
That Mourinho pointedly applauded a run down the touchline, even though it was ignored by Shaw, told everyone in the south stand what the manager thought of the number 22’s efforts. Indeed, a lung-bursting surge through the heart of Feyenoord in the second half summed up his and United’s display: imperfect, but full of application – and just a smattering of flair. A loud ovation when he was substituted was fully deserved.
Ibrahimovic’s fortuitous finish, going in off Jones, and a fine Jesse Lingard strike made the win safe and ensured United’s Europa League fate is firmly in their own hands, but this was a performance that was about more than three immediate points – especially for Rooney.
Perhaps it was a response to weeks of scrutiny, speculation and unflattering footage.
Maybe he was fired up by Feyenoord’s 3,000 fans antagonising the hosts by singing Liverpool songs.
Whatever the motivation, Rooney showed here that the career obituaries can be shelved for now. And with Mourinho’s United still very much under construction, that will come as welcome news.