Wayne Rooney is sweating over his place in Manchester United’s squad ahead of the club’s biggest game of the season against Anderlecht in Belgium on Thursday, despite returning to training this week.
United are due to train at their Carrington base on Wednesday morning before flying to Brussels for the first leg of their critical quarter-final against the Belgian league leaders.
But it remains to be seen if Rooney is named in Jose Mourinho’s squad after being increasingly frozen out by the United manager in the run-up to the club captain’s seemingly inevitable departure from Old Trafford this summer.
Rooney missed United’s last two Premier League matches against Everton and Sunderland with what Mourinho cited as pain in both of the player’s ankles but he did some training last week and is now back in the fold and hoping to travel to Belgium for a game that has assumed huge significance.
Facing a mounting battle to finish in the Premier League’s top four, Mourinho has prioritised the Europa League as the most viable route into next season’s Champions League as well as offering the chance of another trophy after the League Cup and Community Shield.
Rooney’s frequent absences since the turn of the year have often been put down to a succession of niggling injuries but they are the sort of minor problems that would never have prevented the striker from playing in the past.
Mourinho recently challenged his players to play through the pain barrier during a congested run-in but Rooney has continued to be overlooked.
Sources at Old Trafford have been shocked at the speed with which Rooney has dropped out of the picture since Christmas. He has made only one league start since Dec 17, in the 1-1 draw at home to Bournemouth 4½ weeks ago, when he looked well short of match fitness.
That game also marked his last start for the club. Rooney has played merely 449 minutes of football in almost three months for United and has completed 90 minutes on only two occasions in that time, both of them in the FA Cup against Championship opposition, Reading and Wigan Athletic.
One England player who has come in from the cold at United over the past week is Luke Shaw. The left-back has featured in United’s past two matches in the aftermath of fierce criticism from Mourinho about his focus, ambition, commitment and footballing intelligence. But Eric Bailly, a year Shaw’s senior at 22, believes it is imperative the young players in United’s squad accept and learn from Mourinho’s criticism.
“Most of the players [at] Manchester United are young, we are here to learn,” the centre-half said. “We have a great future ahead of us so it is important to listen to the coach’s advice but also the critic's. Every player should receive some criticism because we aren’t perfect, so we have to accept the criticism from the coach and keep on working.”