It is hard reviewing Wayne Rooney’s career not to consider that he has been blessed not merely with remarkable skill and an extraordinary physique, but also with a great scriptwriter.
It is two years ago this week that he announced his genius to the world with that curling chip over David Seaman at Goodison Park, his first senior goal. In retrospect, he had five yards to the right of Seaman to aim at, so lofting it directly over him, while it undoubtedly added to the aesthetic, probably wasn’t the purist’s option.
No matter, the context was all. He was 16, he’d only been on the pitch ten minutes, and it was a last-minute winner that ended Arsenal’s nine-match Premiership unbeaten run days after Arsene Wenger had given voice to what seemed then the ludicrous suggestion that his side could go undefeated for an entire season.
Arsenal have also gone nine unbeaten this season, but of more concern is the 40 games before that. Wenger’s prediction of an unbeaten season has not merely come to pass, but the unblemished record will stretch to 50 games if Arsenal avoid defeat at Old Trafford on Sunday. Rooney, with his affection for the big occasion, looms again as the destroying angel, particularly as Sunday is his nineteenth birthday.
As the Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho pointed out on Thursday, for United, already, this is a final chance. Defeat would leave them 14 points behind Arsenal, which, even with 28 games of the season remaining, would be an almost impossible deficit to overhaul. Justifiably vaunted as their strike force is, they have scored just nine goals in nine Premiership matches this season, 20 fewer than Arsenal. Rooney, despite scoring a hat-trick on his debut against Fenerbahce, has yet to score in the league.
If there is hope for United, it lies in the fact that the fixture list has been improbably kind to Arsenal. Sunday will be their first meeting with one of the other members of last season’s top five, so a crack inflicted in Arsenal’s self-belief could soon be widened.
Arsenal were hardly at their most convincing in drawing with Panathinaikos in midweek, and if Jens Lehmann’s fallibilities are well-known, more of a surprise was Cesc Fabregas actually looking like a 17-year-old for once. With Gilberto Silva out with a back problem and Patrick Vieira struggling with an ankle injury, Fabregas could be set for a third start in eight days.
It is hard to believe, anyway, that Rooney will be upstaged by another teenager. So many threads of fate collide that it feels that it must be his day. Until now, given a stage, he always has performed upon it. He was outstanding on his England debut, he was the best player in the tournament until he broke a metatarsal in Portugal in the summer, and then there were the fireworks on his United debut.
The better the lines, the better he’s delivered them. United’s unravelling hopes of the Premiership demand another bravura performance on Sunday.