Whether it was a curse, a hex, a mental meltdown or just a blip that went on for way too long, a couple of things have become clear about the lowest time of Wayne Rooney's career: That period lasted for exactly one year; and it finally looks to be well and truly over.
Rooney scored his most important goal of the season on Wednesday night, the only strike of a nervous night as Manchester United won 1-0 at Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal between the sides.
He spent so long as soccer's most tortured soul that the next misstep or aberration of judgment never seemed far away, but the 25-year-old is learning quickly that personal mistakes are forgotten that much quicker when accompanied by outstanding play.
Rooney is the same man he was, still a moody figure who snarls and spits and cheated on his wife with a prostitute. He was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons again this week, first for swearing into a television camera at West Ham last weekend and then for being dumped as the public face of Coca-Cola.
But also, let us not forget, he was one of the finest players on the planet until a sudden total loss of form at this precise point of 2010. The difference now is that while Rooney's temper remains prone to boil over at any moment, it is no longer having a negative impact on his game.
His performance at Stamford Bridge was the right mixture of calm and ferocity, blended with a slice of opportunism 24 minutes in when he took Ryan Giggs' pass and slid it into the bottom corner.
"This is definitely what we know Wayne as," said United defender Rio Ferdinand. "He is a top-quality player, he showed some great touches and flashes of brilliance, and the kind of awareness we like to see. He has shown over the last few weeks he has the ability to do wonderful stuff at any time of the game."
For large chunks of this season Rooney was carried by his United teammates. Now, with the possibility of a remarkable treble of titles looming large, he is the one hoisting them on his shoulders. Head coach Sir Alex Ferguson won the English Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League in 1999, and surely cannot have expected that this group could be capable of the same thing.
There is still a long way to go, but this night was a huge step in the right direction and gives United a giant advantage going into the second leg. Ferguson's men are well clear in the EPL race and just two wins away from the FA Cup. The return of the real Rooney could not have come at a better time.
Every action now has threat and menace, and all those months when he would either charge around like a demented bull or seem barely able to muster a trot are in the past. He is happy to play a role when required to, moving to the left when Chelsea's Dimitar Berbatov came on late and taking a full share of defensive duty to stymie Michael Essien's dangerous runs.
The most controversial moment of the night, for once, had nothing to do with Rooney. It came late, when Chelsea's Ramires charged forward and was brought down in the penalty area by United's Patrice Evra, only for the referee to wave away the home side's spot-kick appeals.
Chelsea was furious, but it was the story of their night. They pressed and threatened for much of the second half but just could not find a way through, outdone by a well-oiled machine that is being propelled by a resurgent superstar.
- Wayne Rooney
- Manchester United