LONDON, May 27, 2011 (AFP) - Wayne Rooney's long road to redemption will finally be complete if the Manchester United striker can win his duel with Barcelona's Lionel Messi at Wembley on Saturday.
Rooney's place in the United pantheon seemed assured by the time he helped Sir Alex Ferguson's team to a third successive Premier League title in 2009.
|AFP - A Manchester United team including former players lines up for a picture before a testimonial football match against Juventus for United's Gary Neville's at Old Trafford in Manchester on May 24, 2011. (Back L-R) David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Tomasz Kuszczak, Wes Brown, John O'Shea and Michael Owen. (Front L-R) Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney.|
But less than 18 months after that triumph the 25-year-old was locked in a bitter war of words that looked set to end his stay at Old Trafford.
Fed up of what he perceived as United's lack of ambition, Rooney demanded a transfer in October last year. However, Rooney had spectacularly misjudged the mood at United.
His poor form had already disillusioned some supporters and, rather than protest against their club's transfer policy, United fans made it clear that their star player was guilty of mutiny when reports linked him with rivals Manchester City.
Ferguson cleverly added to that perception when he suggested Rooney might not find the grass greener elsewhere and the saga took a sinister turn as a group of balaclava-clad United supporters turned up at the player's house in the middle of the night to try to firmly persuade him to stay.
Whether it was that menacing intervention or Ferguson's mind games that made the difference remains unknown but within days of asking to leave, Rooney did a complete U-turn and signed a new, improved five-year contract.
Even then, it took him some while to apologise for his behaviour and his name was rarely chanted by the United faithful.
Tormented by lurid stories about his private life, Rooney's form continued to slide alarmingly and he scored only once in the league before Christmas.
The tide finally started to turn when Rooney won the derby against City with a breath-taking bicycle kick in February.
Although Rooney earned a two-match ban for an obscene rant into a television camera against West Ham, it was his brilliant hat-trick in the same match that was more significant.
There was a renewed sense of joy about Rooney's play as he revelled in the extra space afforded by a deep-lying role behind Javier Hernandez.
He scored crucial goals against Chelsea and Schalke that helped Ferguson's side advance to the Champions League final.
And inevitably, Rooney converted the penalty that clinched United's record 19th league title.
United defender Rio Ferdinand admits Rooney's decision to stay was pivotal to their success.
"Rooney staying was a big part of what we achieved this season," Ferdinand said. "There was a sense of relief from the players. Wayne is one of the best three players in the world, so to have him on our team-sheet is a bonus."
Rooney himself is just glad to be enjoying life again.
"The first half of the season was a bit of a write off for me. But since the turn of the year I feel I have contributed to the team and helped us win games. I have really enjoyed it," he said.
Now Rooney has unfinished business in the Champions League.
Although Rooney won the tournament when United beat Chelsea on penalties in 2008, he didn't live up to his potential in that final.
Deployed out of position on the left wing, he flopped again when United were beaten 2-0 by Barcelona in the final a year later.
The star that day was Barcelona forward Messi and the Argentine goes into Saturday's re-match firmly established as the world's best player.
Not so long ago, Rooney had a valid case to be ranked alongside Messi. To reclaim that status he must deliver a match-winning display this weekend.
Barca defender Gerard Pique, a former team-mate of Rooney's at United, has no doubts who the Spanish champions must stop to win at Wembley.
"Rooney is one of the best strikers in the game. I will have to concentrate hard to not to give him space," Pique said.
"It was always difficult playing against him in training as it is with Lionel Messi now."