Soccer

EPL Talk: Wayne Rooney Problems, Liverpool's Fall

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"Rooney, Rooney, Rooney." -- set to the tune of Kaiser Chiefs, "Ruby," ... hey it's fun to sing.

Let's face it, part of the charm about Wayne Rooney -- global soccer star -- is the simple fact he doesn't exactly look like a world class, elite level athlete, what with the receding hairline, baked bean teeth and penchant to smoke the occasional cigarette.

And as rumors swirl this weekend that he wants out of Old Trafford, perhaps, the fact he looked like your average, working-class English geezer will be his inevitable undoing. He looked like one of them. He acted like one of them. It was destiny, innit? Could the pressure heaped on Rooney to become the man to lead England to its first international footballing glory since 1966 became too much and now he's finally cracking?

Look at the two photos juxtaposed above each other. The first is only from 2008, when Manchester United won the English Premier League and Champions League. The lower shot is from Saturday's shock 2-2 draw with West Brom, as he sat the bench at Old Trafford.

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There's the old "eye test" in action and Rooney doesn't pass it.

Most everyone will point to Sir Alex Ferguson falling out with David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona, insinuating Rooney isn't bigger than the gaffer or club.

It's but one prong in a toxic trio, which has turned Rooney from a Ballon d'Or finalist to a guy who looks, old, withered and washed up at the tender age of 24. Two years ago United could put Rooney essentially anywhere on the field and he made and impact, now the club can't even play him effectively at striker.

Rooney is dealing with: a) the sudden Sir Alex Cold War; b) the ankle injury from last spring vs. Bayern that may have never healed and; c) the prostitute scandal. That's a row of cherries in the anti-sports slot machine.

Sunday afternoon I posed on Twitter, which American athlete's fall from grace mirrored Rooney, where his image and skills on the field fell off the cliff simultaneously? A couple people responded with Penny Hardaway, which on the surface sounds good, except it's been essentially proven the ex-Memphis State -- the erstwhile Butch McRae -- was a workout wonder, who was good, but not a totally transcendent star who saw his career untracked by injuries. Put it this way, even with the Little Penny ads, Hardaway never sat atop the basketball world like Rooney did with soccer.

Perhaps Rooney isn't too far from Michael Vick, who's career was already trending downward with the Falcons before the dog fighting charges that led to a prison sentence. Overall, though, what we're seeing with Rooney is almost alien to American sports -- a sudden, shocking total personal and professional collapse.

In soccer? The massive dips in form and guys burning out prematurely is nothing new. From Ronaldo to Paul Gascoigne, we've seen too many soccer Icaruses who ended up flying too close to the sun and burning up.

So what's the knee-jerk reaction to this sudden, shocking Rooney crisis?

Guess it depends, would United and Ferguson -- who may not be around all that much longer himself -- will actually decide to sell Rooney before his current contract expires in 2012. To me, it seems a little premature and Rooney's declaration on Sunday might be posturing. Cooler heads tend to prevail in scenarios like this.

The idea that "no one player is bigger than the club" is nice, but let's be reasonable. Unless the relationship is damaged beyond repair, it behooves United to patch it up. The club precarious financial situation makes it unlikely that another World Top Five player is falling into their laps any time soon. Recall over the summer Sir Alex had to watch Mesut Ozil land at the Bernabeu while he went for ... umm .. Bebe.

And if Rooney does indeed force an exit, top tier talents might see the aura of playing at Old Trafford diminished, if ever so slightly. Don't discount that aura and allure either, of suiting up for "Man U," since it's about all the club has at this point to offset the swimming pools of money at Chelsea and Manchester City.

On the other hands, who has the money to pay United what Rooney is worth: Real Madrid? Barcelona? Inter Milan? Bayern? (cough, cough) the Red Bulls?

These all seem far-fetched, and far-flung destinations. Yet consider the taxes in England are astronomical and the press is relentless.

And hey, for all its galatic level talent, it's not like a certain club that plays out of the Spanish capital is over-flowing with strikers on the current roster. If Real Madrid is able to able to find a buyer for Kaka (Inter again?) it would make Rooney to Real better than 50/50 bet, even if it will immediately draw Michael Owen 2.0 comparisons.

You'd never think an English ex-gangster would settle in sunny southern Spain, but Gaz certainly did in "Sexy Beast."

* * *
Manchester malaise:

The Rooney problems are the easier, juicier target for Manchester United's current struggles, if it's even accurate to call them that. The 2-2 draw with West Brom, where the Baggies overcame a 2-0 deficit at halftime underscored the lack of killer instinct in the squad, as Dimitar Berbatov and others missed plenty of chances in the first half to salt the game away.

United aren't bad, but it's clearly not a sharp, incisive side at the moment. There are two huge issues Sir Alex must sort out, trying to pretend like the losses of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo in recent years aren't still having a massive impact.

1) The Defense -- When United won the League in 2008/09 it allowed a joint league-low, with Chelsea, of only 24 goals. On top of that the club posted 24 clean sheets in 38 matches.

Through eight matches this season, the Red Devils have posted three clean sheets and 11 goals allowed. Jarring numbers, to say the least. For the less math-inclined, that's nearly 45 percent of the goal total in roughly 21 percent of the season.

It's easy to point at the decline of the Nemanja Vidic-Rio Ferdinand partnership, but Patrice Evra's drop in form is almost as sudden as Rooney's. It's hard to fathom is mutinous display with France over the summer has carried with him to the club level. Karma once again being a bitch?

United is getting nothing from the right, either, as Rafael isn't doing much.

1a) Van der Sar's blunder -- The big Dutchman has looked past his expiration date all season, but just his Luis Castillo-esque drop vs. West Brom. He's retiring at the end of the year. Where United turns will be interesting. Hey, Roy Carroll is still playing for Odense BK.

2. Central Midfield -- Throw Michael Carrick into the heap of United players out of sorts. What happened? Without Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher, the United midfield couldn't ice the game. Perhaps Owen Hargreaves settles this, but as it stands, Anderson is rapidly becoming the Old Trafford version of Lucas ... a player, rightly or wrongly, that symbolizes failure.

* * *

Liverpool, Rock Bottom v. 8.1:

First, before the usual Liverpool schadenfreude, a tip of the cap to David Moyes and Everton for a solid, deserved 2-0 win. The Toffees are all the way up to 11th, with two-straight wins. Slow starters, are thy name.

As for Liverpool? Missed the game itself.(*) Once again, I'll point you in the direction of Nate from "Oh You Beauty," who probably won't be trading Christmas cards with Roy Hodgson this yuletide season.

(*) Final scheduled Sunday a.m. softball doubleheader ... which I almost slept through since I set my alarm for 8:15 p.m. Woke up at 9:01. Drove about 90 mph on the highway to get to the field. Felt like one of those bad dreams where you're giving a speech and realize you're only in your underwear. D'oh.

Crazy, in a game you lose 2-0 to your rival to fall to 19th in the table, that Hodgson would find a way to praise the performance. The experimentation with 4-2-3-1 isn't working. Both Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard are unsettled and Joe Cole is lost. And those are the bright spots, since Christian Poulsen and Lucas are a pale imitation of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.

At some point, though, Liverpool fans have to realize, like Rick Pitino, "the Spanish speaking holding midfielders are walking back through that door." Tim to pull off that Band Aid and move forward, even if the squad assembled by Rafa Benitez always seemed more suited and adept at playing in Europe than the weekly grind of the Premier League.

The Premier League still seems to be a 4-4-2 league, with variants of 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 permeating. The number one issue to address before January is if Torres: a) still wants to play at Liverpool b) still wants to give an effort and c) if he doesn't, who and want can you get for him?

There are still good players here, but they are clearly rattled. In the Prem, unlike American sports, you can't waste a season waiting for changes to take shape.

Maybe John Henry can dig Kevin Millar out of whatever dive bar he's currently populating and have him distribute some pregame shots of whiskey so the team can "Cowboy Up." At this point I've run out of my (free) advice.

Chelsea Hiccup:

Keep this one quick because the inch-count is rising on this post.

Not much to say about Chelsea. Is it surprising the Blues drew at Villa Park 0-0 without Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard? Nic Anelka is not an alpha-dog, goal scorer and more. He's settled into a secondary role. Flourent Malouda tried to take over, but ended up hitting the post.

It could have ended in a loss if Nigel Reo-Coker converted a late breakway, but cut him some slack, he is Nigel Reo-Coker after all.

Chelsea are now just two points ahead of Manchester City, which struggled to put away Blackpool 3-2. City, with it's defensive approach, is built to linger and should Cheslea continue to drop (the occasional) point. City aren't flashy, but they'll be difficult to break down and defeat, so as long as Carlos Tevez is a one-man gang, they'll be Chelsea's No. 1 rival, regardless of what Arsenal does.

Arsenal? Eh. Take the three points vs. a game Birmingham team. Nothing gorgeous about the win, but hey, it doesn't matter does it Monsieur Wenger?

Ironic, right, Jack Wilshere went in studs up on Nikola Zigic (a hilarious physical disparity) and was sent off. Missed the horrified reaction by Alex McLeish condemning Arsenal's tactics.

Under the Hood:

Truly, utterly bizarre game-winning goal from Tom Huddlestone Saturday, sending Spurs to a 2-1 win over Fulham, the Cottagers first defeat of the season mind you.

Tottenham had a corner, the ball pinged out to Huddlestone beyond the penalty area and he ripped a low, powerful shot past Mark Schwarzer. It was initially waved off by the linesman, who deemed William Gallas (correctly) in an offside position.

Huddlestone protested to referee Mike Dean that Gallas didn't interfere with the shot itself, even if he stood right in the way of the Aussie keeper, so it should be a goal. Wiley walked over to the linesman and overturned the call.

This was the first time I can remember something like this ever happening at any level. Again, it was a perfect place to have some kind of replay official, who could look at replay and deem if the French defender did indeed deflect the shot.

Has this ever happened before? Or at least this brazenly? Did we just witness a new soccer precedent?

Around the League -- Ian Darke (My Man!) uses one of those four-color ink click pens. Cannot express how happy this makes me. ... Where does Maroune Chamakh hide his snorkel and goggles? ... Bigger shock for Tottenham Saturday: Sandro's debut or Ledley King limping off with a non-contact injury. I'll hand it to Sandro since he attempted to play with a popped collar all match. ... Clint Dempsey keeps making it happen for Fulham. Fantastic body control inside the box set it up for Diomansy Kamara on a tee. ... Two goals from Charles N'Zogbia for Wigan. I don't even know what to say, guess I'm just impressed. ... Nice job by Newcastle to rally late with the equalizer coming from mock-worthy Fab Coloccini. ... Always good to Ivan Klasnic score, too, for Bolton since he did have that kidney transplant and all. ... Oh and now there's this. A judge ordering Andy Carroll to live with Kevin Nolan. Can't make this stuff up, folks. ... Another tremendous job by the Fox Soccer Channel graphic department, listing the Chelsea/Aston Villa game as "final" at halftime. At least it proved prescient, since the matched did end 0-0..

Fantasy Team O' the Week:

Iki Dort's Dirty Greens put up an eye-opening 80 points thanks to Chamakh, Tevez, Nani and seven from Phil Jagielka, who was supposedly unfit to play. Yeah, he was on my bench.

One Other Thing:

It amazed me to no end when I read Sunday night the Mexican club owners have a big vote in the decision of whom coaches the Mexican National Team.

Too bad Sebastian Cisneros doesn't own a soccer team.