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Mar 6, 2013

Wayne Rooney future under scrutiny

After he was snubbed from Manchester United's Champions League exit to Real Madrid, the cracks between Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson appear to be widening.

LONDON -- Emboldened by comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney was in such a position of strength at Manchester United in 2010 that he took on manager Alex Ferguson and won a lucrative new contract.

At that time, Rooney was at the peak of his powers, easily English football's star player. He seemed to believe he was too good for United, that the club wasn't matching his ambitions.

Less than three years later and the opposite may be true.

Rooney was left sitting on the bench for the first 70 minutes of the 2-1 loss. He was only sent in once the Red Devils had fallen behind.

Ferguson's decision to drop Rooney -- now behind Robin van Persie in the pecking order -- for Tuesday's Champions League match against Real Madrid has left some to question the striker's future at Old Trafford.

Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho defended Ferguson's decision to start the match without Rooney.

"Sir Alex has won the right for every decision to be correct and never have a question mark against them," Mourinho told reporters after the match.

"He is the best. He is the top. You (reporter) are nobody to put a question like that. I am nobody. He did a great job."

Former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker Michael Owen told the BBC Tuesday that Rooney should be worried.

"It's the biggest game of the season and the manager has shuffled his pack and not included him," Owen said.

"A couple of years ago, if Wayne wasn't the first-choice striker, he would have played him in left midfield or behind the striker. For him not to start is a real kick in the teeth. Obviously Wayne has got to get his head down now and start recapturing his best form."

Ten years ago, David Beckham was snubbed by Ferguson for a big Champions League match against Madrid — and then left United for the Spanish team at the end of the season. Ruud van Nistelrooy was left out of United's side for the 2006 League Cup final following an apparent rift with Ferguson and wasn't at the club the following campaign.

Rooney's plight -- missing out on arguably United's biggest match since the 2011 Champions League final -- was overshadowed by the game-changing red card awarded to Nani and the fact that Ronaldo scored the winner against his former club on an emotional night at Old Trafford.

Yet, it could well prove to be an intriguing side-issue for the rest of the season, for Rooney will never be short of suitors. British bookmaker William Hill has odds of 7-2 on Rooney leaving in the offseason, with Manchester City the favorite to sign him.

The reasons behind Ferguson's selection must be galling for Rooney. The coach suggested the player's fitness was an issue -- "Wayne Rooney needs a game or two" -- despite Rooney having played 90 minutes against Norwich on Saturday, scoring a fabulous late goal and setting up two others in an impressive display.

Ferguson also said Danny Welbeck was the attacking player more suited to the defensive duties of shackling Xabi Alonso, the deep-lying playmaker who starts many of Madrid's attacks.

"Big decisions have to be made," United assistant manager Mike Phelan said.

Until Nani was sent off, the strategy worked perfectly. Welbeck was United's best player, stunting Alonso's influence but also looking like his team's most dangerous player going forward.

However, he didn't score from two great chances and that is the point Rooney's many supporters will argue. Whereas Welbeck has scored only two goals for United this season, Rooney has 14 and would have been more likely to take those chances.

Rooney, brooding while sitting in United's dugout, came on as a 73rd-minute substitute, all fired up. But he couldn't change the game, missing a good chance when he hooked a close-range volley over.

His actions after the final whistle were telling. While the majority of United's players complained to the officials -- Rio Ferdinand applauded sarcastically in Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir's face -- Rooney was shaking hands with Madrid players.

Perhaps it is a sign of the new, mature Rooney. But usually he is one of the most emotional players out there, the first to be barking at the officials.

"He'll be bitterly disappointed to be left out," former United midfielder Roy Keane said in his role as a TV analyst. "Wayne might be quite selfish about it and look at it and say the writing's on the wall for him."

That's the same Keane who also had run-ins with Ferguson, notably after criticizing his teammates in an interview with in-house station MUTV in 2005.

Rooney has had to accept he is no longer the main striker at United since Van Persie's arrival in August and his contribution to United's surge to the Premier League title has been fleeting.

It's getting to the stage where pundits are applauding his determination and ability to track back to help his defense more than his impact as a goal scorer.

Rooney has been playing on the left wing, behind the striker even in central midfield this season -- and he surely sees himself as more than simply a glorified utility player.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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