Rooney at the peak of his powers

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Rooney is in the form of his life, his self-described "best season so far," and has already scored 25 goals -- his record tally. Since Christmas, he's powered United onto Chelsea's shoulder in the English Premier League with star performances, including his four-goal haul against Hull and his counterattacking brilliance in United's 3-1 win at Arsenal.

He also scored the late winner in United's Carling Cup semifinal victory over Manchester City, having pummeled the City defense for much of the two-legged tie. And on Wednesday, Rooney scored twice on second-half headers in the San Siro as United won 3-2 at AC Milan in the Champions League.

Milan's David Beckham, speaking after his side's defeat, described Rooney's performance as exceptional. "You give him chances and he'll score," Beckham said. "That is the way he is. That is the way his mind works.

"Without a doubt, he is one of the best goal scorers in the world and I have always said that about him."

Said United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: "Rooney has been fantastic and he has developed that aura. His form has brought him to the high point of his career, without a doubt. The point he is at is encouraging. World class is a misused term, but with Rooney, you have to say he is getting to the point where he is now one of the best players in the world. He has to be regarded at the highest level."

Rooney works hard and, according to Beckham, "the way he plays on the field is the way he plays in training." He also possesses a potent combination of skill and desire, as observed by Everton's Landon Donovan, who will face Rooney in the EPL on Saturday.

But why the improvement in form? "Confidence has a lot to do with it, of course," Ferguson said. "I just felt he had to improve his goal scoring, which is what he is doing now."

Rooney attributed his success to positioning and his relishing a different role.

"I've just become a more clinical striker," he told reporters. "I'm taking up better positions and taking my chances now, and I reckon it is all about spending more time in the penalty box, getting right in there and getting on the end of the ball. All my goals have been scored in the penalty box this season, whereas before I got a few from outside it too.

"The difference is I'm playing up front instead of [Cristiano] Ronaldo now, whereas before I might be put out wide. The truth is I'm loving being the main striker up front on my own. That is my favorite position.

"I'm enjoying having more of that responsibility this season."

During a season in which English teammates Steven Gerrard and, to a lesser extent, Frank Lampard have suffered from injuries and indifferent form, and John Terry is unsettled by personal scandal, much hangs on Rooney's form at the World Cup.

But can he live up to the billing, and will the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or (European Footballer of the Year) honors finally show him to be rated alongside the world's very best of Kaká, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi?

Rooney has never finished in the top three in either award, but he surely will this season. As for the White Pelé moniker, that will ring true only if the 24-year-old maintains his current form through the years to come.


Like Rooney, Arsenal elder statesman Sol Campbell also scored in the Champions League this week. That's two goals in two Champions League matches for the big defender, his last goal coming in Arsenal's loss to Barcelona in the 2006 final. However, that the 35-year-old Campbell, a player whose playing time this season consists of one appearance for League 2 Notts County and one for Arsenal, started the match is an indication of the lack of true depth in the Gunners' squad.

The two goals Arsenal conceded in its 2-1 defeat at Porto were both freakish errors from second-choice keeper Lukasz Fabianski, and given that the Gunners grabbed a vital away goal and that they rarely fail to score at the Emirates, they are still favorites to advance into the quarterfinals.

The Gunners have had a mixed couple of weeks in the EPL. After defeats to Chelsea and Manchester United and a draw at Aston Villa, they looked to have blown any hopes of claiming the title. That all changed when Chelsea lost 2-1 to Everton last week, when Terry's off-field problems clearly affected his form.

Chelsea's defeat, combined with United's draw with Aston Villa and Arsenal's win over Liverpool, has brought the Gunners back into contention, albeit with plenty of work still to do. They are in third place, five points behind United and six points behind Chelsea.

Chelsea will hope that Terry will have cleared his head by the time it visits former boss Jose Mourinho and Inter Milan at the San Siro next Wednesday in the Champions League. In the prematch build-up, the Special One wasted no time reminding us why we miss his outspoken and outlandish quips.

"Chelsea have suffered in the last two years, and it's no coincidence that their decline happened after I left," he told the Daily Telegraph.

This comment continues an intriguing subplot to the match -- the feud between Mourinho and Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti, which flared when they were cross-city rivals at the two Milanese clubs last season. Ancelotti has often been derogatory about Mourinho's non-soccer-playing background and appetite for self-promotion, and on appointment at Chelsea, claimed not to know who the Special One was.

Meanwhile, Mourinho has often spoken jealously of the Italian's success, and took much pleasure in beating his side to the Scudetto in Mourinho's first season at Inter.

Both managers will be desperate to come out on top in what should be a highly charged game.

Joel Wilson from Jacksonville, Fla., is a worried Liverpool fan: "After watching my beloved Liverpool playing in the Europa League against a team I'd never heard of, the thought of missing out on Champions League football next season doesn't bear thinking about. Do you reckon they can make fourth place?"

Of late, Liverpool has been grateful for the teams around them not putting points on the board, with Tottenham losing against Wolves, Villa drawing its last two games and Manchester City losing at Hull and drawing with Stoke. Liverpool, though, is a shadow of the team it was in the last few seasons. Fernando Torres' injury problems have continually kept him out, though he is expected to return against Manchester City on Sunday. Gerrard is not scoring at the same rate as the previous two seasons. With their two power players missing or in poor form, the Reds are struggling.

If the Reds do finish fourth, they will likely have been helped by the failings of the teams around them, or by Torres and Gerrard orchestrating renewed verve. It should go to the wire, and the Europa League -- with its additional nine games if Liverpool reaches the final -- is probably a distraction Rafael Benítez could do without.

Sunday's six-pointer at the City of Manchester Stadium will determine a lot.