It is a sign of Wayne Rooney’s recent troubles that he is not guaranteed to make Manchester United’s starting line-up against West Ham on Sunday despite breaking a club record this week.
The United captain became the Red Devils’ all-time leading European scorer on Thursday with a fine finish to set up a 4-0 Europa League victory over Feyenoord. He needs just one more goal now to draw level with England great Bobby Charlton as United’s highest scorer in all competitions. Yet in a television interview after the Feyenoord game Rooney, who has struggled for form this season, launched into an attack on the British media.
Rooney, who was on England duty at the time, faced heavy criticism this month after photographs appearing to show him drunk at a wedding party were published in a newspaper. Although he apologised for “inappropriate” behaviour, Rooney has since downplayed the incident. The forward feels he has been harshly treated, but perhaps there is a sense that he has a point to prove too.
Rooney has started just one of United’s last seven Premier League games, with manager Jose Mourinho preferring Juan Mata or Paul Pogba in the withdrawn role behind main striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
While there is satisfaction in breaking club records, it does little to dispel the sense that, at 31, Rooney’s best days may be behind him. Winning a starting spot on Sunday would go some way to dispelling that notion.
Another United player seeking to disprove his critics is midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who started a club game for the first time since September when he played against Feyenoord. The Armenia captain’s lack of opportunities under Mourinho since his £26 million pre-season move from Borussia Dortmund has been a source of bafflement for many fans.
‘One more step’
However, the manager is adamant that Mkhitaryan has not been frozen out. “He just needs now to replicate this kind of performance in the Premier League,” Mourinho said.
“The Premier League is different — he needs one more step. Obviously now, confidence levels are higher. This performance gives him the right to believe that he can play the next match again and he needs to replicate this kind of performance in the Premier League with more physicality and more aggression.”
With just one win in their last six Premier League games, United have slipped to sixth and need rapid domestic improvement.
They do, at least, have Ibrahimovic available in attack, the forward having missed last Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal because of suspension.
Last weekend’s agonising late defeat at London rivals Tottenham Hotspur left West Ham just one point and one place above the relegation places.
It also raised questions over the long-term future of manager Slaven Bilic. “I feel the pressure of course, because we are not delivering and performing enough to get points to feel happy,” said Bilic. “But I see the improvement, I see the team that is hungry and alive and the points were there for us in a very difficult away game. That’s what I’m concentrated on and not to make mistakes like we did against Spurs.”
He added: “It’s still very tight. With a win against Tottenham we would have been 12th or eleventh, but we are in the position we are.
“You can say it’s still early days, but we have to start picking up the points. We can say we were unlucky or we deserve more, but the table doesn’t lie.”
Hammers central defender Winston Reid is suspended but Bilic hopes to have midfielder Pedro Obiang back in his squad.