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As Rooney's England goal drought ends, the blame game begins

Manchester United was forlorn by the end of its last visit (in February) to Goodison Park, a 3-1 home victory in which Wayne Rooney's imperious form vanished under the attentive shadow of Everton's back line. It wasn't the first time Rooney had failed to assert himself in a match against his old club, but at least the abuse he'd received from the home supporters seemed to be dissipating ... a trend that's unlikely to continue if he takes the field Saturday.

Tabloid allegations about Rooney's relationship with Manchester call girl Jennifer Thompson during his wife Coleen's pregnancy hit the shelves last weekend, and further revelations in recent days have put the striker at the heart of a farcical soap opera. Most intriguing is that since he ended his goal drought for England against Switzerland on Tuesday, there have been suggestions that Rooney's poor showing at the World Cup was a result of terrified anticipation of his indiscretion making headlines.

Really? There's no doubt that the Rooney whom England supporters booed in South Africa was not the Rooney who had single-handedly carried United's attacking potency. His movement was uncharacteristically jaded and he subsequently managed fewer shots at goal than "North Korea's Rooney," Jong Tae-Se (who played fewer matches, against stronger opposition). But the dip surely coincides first and foremost with his rushed return from injury in April.

After turning his ankle in the first leg of United's Champions League meeting with Bayern Munich, Rooney was supposed to be out for weeks rather than days. But he was back in action in the return leg as Sir Alex Ferguson's faith in Dimitar Berbatov evaporated. Rooney, who had already made 40 appearances for United before the injury, struggled through 55 minutes before being replaced. But he was in the starting lineup 10 days later and for two of United's three remaining matches. The dynamism, if not the desire, already looked washed out of him.

Of course it's reasonable to think that personal problems take a psychological toll, but it's difficult to countenance that a player with such natural talent -- remember how ludicrously easy Rooney made the game look when he burst onto the scene at 16? -- should become such a pale imitation of himself, and for such a considerable spell, if his body was able, regardless of what was on his mind.

Besides, there are plenty of players -- including Peter Crouch (alleged night with a Spanish prostitute), John Terry (affair with Vanessa Perroncel) and Steven Gerrard (charged with assault and affray) -- who've shown that off-field adversity doesn't automatically translate into poor form. Lee Bowyer produced the performance of his life in Leeds' 2-1 win over Anderlecht in 2001, having come to the ground straight from court. Ashley Cole probably can't remember the last time newspapers weren't attacking him, but he remains one of England's best and most consistent performers.

Perhaps it's unfair to extrapolate that Rooney will be the same as his teammates, but we might do so from his past. In 2004, tabloids reported that Rooney had repeatedly visited a Liverpool brothel, with stills from CCTV footage as proof. The 16-year-old was still magnesium volatile, but in the run-up to the revelations, he'd been the breakout player at Euro 2004; in the aftermath, he scored a Champions League hat trick in his United debut.

Maybe there is more at stake now: He's a married man and a father. But Thompson dates the latest dalliance to a time when Rooney was effervescent in England's 5-1 win over Croatia, and had scored eight goals in 13 appearances for United by the time it ended. Once bitten, twice you know the papers will get you eventually, but these didn't seem like the performances of a man distracted by guilt.

Nor by fear -- Rooney reportedly knew the story was coming weeks ago, yet he's inched into United's season without looking fraught with worry. "He's not 100 percent yet," assistant coach Mike Phelan admitted after Rooney scored against West Ham on Aug. 28 for his first United goal since March, but the striker hit something near it as the heartbeat of England's 4-0 win over Bulgaria last Friday. There was a split second when, having been jeered for not controlling the ball, it seemed possible that he might follow Eric Cantona into the stands, but, two days before the Sunday newspapers put him on the front page, he kept his cool. Two days after the news of his infidelity broke, he inevitably scored.

Only Rooney himself can know the impact his folly has had on his game, and it may get harder if his wife bucks a WAGs trend and leaves him. But it still doesn't sit right to blame events so far for a poor summer. More often than not disgraced players find sanctuary, not purgatory, on the pitch. It's been evident almost every time Rooney has taken the field since that recovery was rushed in the spring. Suggesting otherwise smacks a little of the papers trying to justify making it all public in the first place.

According to Gerrard, who played under him at Liverpool, Gerard Houllier has been "desperate" to get back to the Premier League, though he probably imagined a slightly warmer reception. Aston Villa has even launched a "Welcome the manager" campaign, offering 1,000 tickets for Houllier's first home game in charge -- theoretically a testing visit from unbeaten Bolton on Sept. 18, but Houllier's release date from the French Football Federation is still undetermined -- at a reduced rate. Perhaps the theory is that those who've saved 70 percent on their ticket will be too polite to heckle.

Villa wasn't expecting Martin O'Neill's departure, so it's understandable that arranging his replacement took some time, but a month is a long time for supporters' imaginations to run away with them. Getting behind the "realistic option" requires some adjustment.

Assessing Houllier's credibility is complicated by the massive change in his fortunes at Liverpool. Winning a treble of cups (FA, League and UEFA -- plus the Charity Shield and the European Super Cup) in 2001 papered over any creeping misgivings about his tactical astuteness, and Houllier's emergency heart surgery that year earned goodwill by the bucket load. Liverpool drove to second place in the 2001-02 table.

But by the time he left Anfield two years later, Houllier had become a reliable punchline, famed more for his bungling in the transfer market than anything else. Loanee Nicolas Anelka was the exemplar: Instead of making his move permanent, Houllier opted to spend $15 million on El Hadji Diouf, who scored three league goals in his first season and none in his second. Anelka was Manchester City's top scorer both years.

Houllier has been away from the Premier League for a long time, and perceptions of French football will, rightly or wrongly, color appreciation for his title-winning success at Lyon. Some Villa fans (and players) were keen for caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald to be given a shot, but with Houllier bringing in Patrice Bergues as his assistant, MacDonald may now be out of a job altogether. This will require diplomatic handling by the new man, though Bergues was popular with players at Anfield.

Jamie Carragher is one of the few players whose opinion is usually instructive, so his backing -- he said that he would model himself on Houllier if he were to become a manager -- along with Gerrard's is worth noting: Houllier brought both through as youngsters. He is perhaps given too much credit for the breakthroughs of Karim Benzema, Loic Remy and Hatem Ben Arfa at Lyon, but he never lacked the courage to use the teenagers. At a time when Villa has little cash but plenty of young talent, there are worse appointments than Houllier. More ringing endorsements are on hold until the New Year.

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