Manchester United's defining player of the past eight years puts in an unstinting performance as some of his team-mates fade
If Manchester United and Chelsea emerged with their fates in this season's FA Cup undecided at Old Trafford, for the travelling caravan of Wayne Rooney revisionists, Rooney-apologists and the many associated elements attached to the Rooney celebrity-sporting persona, this was an equally mixed afternoon. There will have been a temptation here at the end of the first half – with United 2-0 up, Rooney the scorer of a slightly fortunate second goal – to find a dramatic counterpoint to the extremes of personal decline detected in Rooney's absence from the team against Real Madrid. Instead United, as they had on Tuesday night, faded noticeably in the final 25 minutes as Chelsea's own withdrawn attackers, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata, took control with a deftness that provided a more precise counterpart to Rooney's bustling, first-half energy, playing the major part in Chelsea emerging with the better half of a 2-2 draw.
In the end, Rooney's main participation here was as a component in two decisively opposed trios of attacking midfielders. If the much-vaunted "Mazacar" team-within-a-team of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard finished much the stronger, credit is due to Rafael Benítez: even as the Chelsea fans were chanting "You're not wanted here," just after the hour the Spaniard's substitutions were changing the course of events, most notably in the case of Hazard, the dominant figure of a dominating final half hour.
Not only did Rooney return here, he was reinstated to his favoured floating No10 role from the start, albeit as ever with the requirement to switch places with Shinji Kagawa and Nani in a fluid, attacking tripod behind Javier Hernández.
The cheer from the home crowd as his name was read out before kick off brought a notable spike in volume, and Rooney it was who kicked off in watery spring sunshine. If his first touch was a heavy chest trap that trickled out of play, the move for United's opening goal in the fifth minute was brilliantly precise, Hernández's looped header from Michael Carrick's fine pass a clinical piece of improvisation. And for a while afterwards United dominated, the crowd chanting Rooney's name as he dropped deep, linking play with something of an early swagger.
If Rooney has fallen short of the most alpine footballing peaks – barring one outstanding season three years ago – this has variously been taken as a kind of affront, indicative of a failure of imagination or of ambition. It might be better to see a player who has adapted his style to get the best out of his gifts. Instead of unmanacled inspiration, which few ever really deliver, he has brought defensive qualities and brilliantly reliable finishing. Plus, it has been11 years now of unrelenting football. In footballer years this is a most weathered and seasoned 27-year-old: had he started at 20 not 16 we might in time simply be saying here is an enduringly fine player in well-earned early dotage.
There was evidence of his willingness to muck in with a rather fortunate free-kick goal on 11 minutes. His delivery from the left had pace and accuracy: the flick off the combined heads of Evans and David Luiz helped deceive Cech, but not enough to prevent it being Rooney's goal. The celebration was gleeful but far from pointed, carrying just an understated little ghost of the Eric Cantona fey-crucifixion pose.
For the rest of the first half Rooney was eagerly if not decisively prominent. Playing in high-viz boots which at times gave him an unflatteringly flappy, banana-footed look, his touch was occasionally loose, but his movement was acute. In fact at times in the first half United seemed to be playing with two No10s as the impressive Kagawa also dropped into the deeper central position. The Japanese is a wonderfully nimble mover, not so much scorching the turf as very delicately dusting it, all light-footed elegance where Rooney looms with bulldozing intent.
If there is a flaw in the set-up of Manchester United's fluid, three-man attacking midfield it perhaps comes in the transitions from defence to attack: here they often seemed to be setting off from a standing start, looking up to find where the front three were, rather than seeking a set of well-grooved counterattacking starter's blocks.
Certainly the contrast with Chelsea's attacking trio after the break was clear. As the visitors dominated possession, their own No10, Juan Mata, was increasinglyprominent, finding the pass that allowed Hazard to curl a wonderful, right-footed shot past David de Gea. Chelsea's second goal was brilliantly put away by Ramires on the break. And Mata, nimble to the end, might have won it in the final moments – a side-footed shot drawing a match-saving finger-tip stop from De Gea. For Rooney there was the consolation of an unstinting defensive performance as a tired-looking United faded.
Predictably, there were no answers to be had here over the future of United's defining player of the past eight years; just a flickering reminder of both his enduring qualities and – of course – the familiar, honestly borne limitations.