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United becomes Wayne's world

A ONE-MAN team? That is a big question to ask, given that Manchester United, for all their flaws, sit proudly atop the Premier League this morning.

Alex Ferguson, naturally, would bristle at such a suggestion and Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs, among others, might consider it an insult.

But even before Wayne Rooney's four-goal salvo against Hull City, the feeling had been growing for some weeks that, without their rampaging England forward, United would be, if not ordinary, then certainly a grossly inferior proposition.

In terms of attempting to gauge the player's importance to United, maybe the question should be this: where exactly would the Premier League champions be now had Rooney followed Cristiano Ronaldo out of the Old Trafford exit door last summer?



dependence

Still leading the way in the hunt for a fourth successive title? Given United's dependence on him this season, that would appear doubtful. More likely, they would be clinging to the coat-tails of Arsenal and Chelsea while looking over their shoulders at the chasing pack of Champions League wannabes, or worse, actually shoehorned among Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Liverpool and Aston Villa.

Rooney's four goals took his tally for United for the season to 20 in 28 games, but assessing the limitations of the team built around him makes you wonder just how devastating his form might have been had he been playing alongside a quality, imposing target man and with a visionary midfield player operating behind.

As things stand, too often it has been a case of "Do It Yourself, Roo". Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen -- afforded a rare start alongside Rooney at Old Trafford against Hull -- are no one's idea of a suitable, high-calibre foil and the United midfield lacks a world-class performer to ease the creative burden on Rooney.

Ferguson insisted on Friday that Rooney will be rested at some point, but it is hard to see when or how, with United so reliant on him flogging his guts out, grabbing games by the scruff of the neck and dragging his team over the finishing line.

Real Madrid's interest in Rooney is genuine, but Ferguson would rather see United roll over to Manchester City in the second leg of their Carling Cup semi-final at Old Trafford on Wednesday than sell his talisman, and the player has no desire to leave.

That said, he wants a new contract reflective of his standing and that means about £200,000 a week, double what he earns now.

The speculation may be designed partly to force United's hand, but before the club balk at Rooney's demands, they will do well to ask how costly life would be without him? Sure, they would get an enormous fee but success on the pitch -- far from a given, even with Rooney in the team -- remains paramount to the mechanics of the Glazers' controversial regime.

United supporters publicly defied Ferguson's plea in his programme notes not to allow their fierce opposition to the Americans' ownership of the club to "become divisive". A banner bearing the words "Glazer -- Forever in your Debt" was also unfurled before kick-off, but even with United €817.2m in the red, Hull, for one, might argue that their opponents' biggest debt is owed to Rooney.

Without Rooney, the 4-0 result game, also notable for the return of Ferdinand after three months out injured, could have gone either way. "The difference in the end wasn't only Wayne Rooney," Phil Brown, the Hull manager, said. Oh, but it was.

© The Times, London