MANCHESTER, England (AP) — He scored another landmark goal, he raged at the referee, he tackled back, and covered every blade of grass for his team’s cause.
Welcome back, Wayne Rooney.
A summer return to boyhood club Everton has lit a fire in English soccer’s most talked-about player, whose career was in rapid decline as he sat on the substitutes’ bench game after game at Manchester United last season.
Rooney has always been a player who needs a run of matches to really get into his stride. He is getting that at Everton.
After making an early return to preseason training to work on his fitness, the 31-year-old Rooney started his fifth competitive match of the season in the 1-1 draw at Manchester City in the Premier League on Monday. He looked fitter, sharper and hungrier than in recent years, and seemed to relish being the father-figure in a team containing two 20-year-olds (Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Mason Holgate) and a 19-year-old (Tom Davies).
Rooney hasn’t lost his eye for goal, either, popping up in City’s box in a rare Everton attack to side-foot home the 200th Premier League goal of his career, a scoring feat only Alan Shearer has previously achieved.
“He has that cleverness that you need in your team,” Everton manager Ronald Koeman said, “to know exactly in every moment on the pitch what is the best decision.”
Hurling a volley of abuse at the referee, earning a late yellow card, wasn’t Rooney’s wisest decision of the night at Etihad Stadium but it shows his passion hasn’t dimmed.
In front of the watching Jose Mourinho, the Man United manager who has just sold him, and Gareth Southgate, the England manager who recently dropped him, Rooney played like a man with a point to prove to those who still doubt the record scorer for United and England.
“The thing for me is to play,” Rooney said, repeating remarks he made in May during one of his last media duties as a United player. “I didn’t play as much last year and if you don’t play, you don’t get that match fitness.”
Then, in a swipe at the armchair critics, he said his display was “not bad for someone who is not fit anymore and can’t get about the pitch.”
Rooney has scored in Everton’s opening two league games, taking him to two goals by Aug. 21. It took him until Jan. 21 to reach that number last season.
Playing in Europa League qualifiers against MFK Ruzomberok (home and away) and Hadjuk Split (at home) has helped Rooney get a base fitness and allowed him to settle into a new-look Everton team and 5-3-2 formation.
In the past nine days, he has scored the winner against Stoke in the Premier League, set up Idrissa Gueye with a delicate through-ball for a goal against Hadjuk, and now netted against City.
Can Southgate ignore Rooney when he names his England squad on Thursday for upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia?
“He’s at a physical state that we need and he needs, to give this kind of performances,” Koeman said. “That’s what we like to keep, the good fitness. There’s no doubt about his qualities on the ball.
“We’d like to win titles, and he knows how to win titles. That’s a big experience.”
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