Wayne Rooney returned to the Manchester United fold on Monday night in a display suggesting he looks fit enough to at least claim a spot on the bench at West Ham.
A grinning Louis van Gaal and assistant Ryan Giggs were present to see their captain get through 61 minutes for the Under 21s against Middlesbrough ahead of Wednesday’s FA Cup quarter-final replay at Upton Park.
Paddy McNair netted the only goal moments after Rooney was replaced, but his senior was fairly sharp and will offer his manager another option as the top-four scramble becomes ever more desperate.
Rooney’s absence has certainly been felt since he suffered a knee injury during defeat by Sunderland mid-February, missing 12 games which were symptomatic of Van Gaal’s season thus far; the occasional pleasing results – Arsenal at home, Manchester City away – acting as anomalies rather than the norm. They were 58 days in keeping with this turgid campaign.
Van Gaal knows all too well the importance of Rooney to his floundering side, perhaps a reason why he implored the captain to play on at the Stadium of Light, a decision which may have exacerbated the problem.
The 30-year-old does have his detractors, who became louder and grew in numbers earlier this season, but – like it or – United need him right now, if only for numbers.
They have also scored a meagre five goals in their last eight fixtures from the beginning of March, lacking bite and recording just one shot on target in the limp capitulation at Tottenham on Sunday. Even Marcus Rashford was not immune from Van Gaal criticism there.
Rooney, who netted seven in the nine games prior to that injury in the north-east, will want to hit the ground running from here as the European Championship fast approaches. Roy Hodgson is intent on standing by him despite the rise of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, while Van Gaal said on Friday that he remains England’s No 1 striker.