Ahead of Manchester United FC's trip to AC Milan, Wayne Rooney discusses renewing rivalries with Alessandro Nesta, the striker's all-action style and why yoga makes Ryan Giggs a "perfect player".
Wayne Rooney will renew acquaintances with the defender he considers his most awkward adversary when the UEFA Champions League resumes on Tuesday, but any sense of insecurity will most likely be in his opponent's mind.
The Manchester United FC striker is in the finest scoring form of his career as he prepares to face first knockout round opponents AC Milan and a defensive counterpart in Alessandro Nesta whose shackles he has struggled to escape in two previous meetings at San Siro.
"His positional sense was brilliant, and it was difficult – he reads the game so well, it was difficult to play against him," Rooney told UEFA.com, recalling past frustrations against the Rossoneri.
On the first occasion in March 2005, Rooney, then 19, was part of a United side whose single-goal defeat confirmed a 2-0 last-16 aggregate loss. Two years later, he endured more disappointment as eventual champions Milan overturned a 3-2 semi-final first-leg deficit with a comprehensive 3-0 victory.
According to Rooney "it is always difficult to play Italian opposition" and he expects more of the same against Leonardo's team. "At the beginning of the season I think they were struggling a bit, but over the last couple of months they found some good form and they are playing well, so it will be a difficult game for us."
For all Rooney's admiration of Nesta, the Italian international and his fellow defenders could have their hands full containing a forward in the mood to replicate his two goals against Milan in that ultimately vain Old Trafford semi-final first-leg triumph in 2007.
Rooney has grabbed emphatically the challenge of assuming the central attacker's role at United following Cristiano Ronaldo's departure, halving his games-per-goal ratio and leading the Premier League standings with 21 strikes.
Fabio Capello, his England manager and a 1993/94 UEFA Champions League winner when in charge of Milan, has spoken approvingly of the 24-year-old's improvement "close to goal" and Rooney, who found the net once in the group stage, knows he will to have be at his sharpest on Tuesday.
"In the Champions League, especially the knockout rounds, you know if you have a chance you really have to take it, because you might not get another chance in the game," he said. He may be more occupied in opposition penalty boxes this season, but what has not changed is Rooney's endearing eagerness to track back and help his team-mates.
"You know, I do that because I want to win," he said. "And sometimes maybe I probably shouldn't do it, I should probably save my energy and stay up front, but I think it's just the way I have been brought up – I want to win and I try to give everything to do that."
To borrow from the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Sir Alex Ferguson could be forgiven for viewing Rooney as his on-field avatar – the embodiment of the sexagenarian Scot's burning desire for victory. "Still now, at his age, his desire and his will to try and win is unbelievable. I think he definitely passes that on to the players," Rooney said of his manager.
Rooney's hatred of defeat is almost as infamous as Sir Alex's yet he has become a father during this campaign and says he is able to go home and "forget about football". You almost believe him and the signs are he is maturing impressively – he certainly considers himself better able now to harness his natural aggression.
"I think you have to," he said. "You can't say or do much on the pitch. You can't tackle as hard and if you even look at refs now, you could get a yellow card. You have just try to stay away from the refs, and not speak to them really, because, you know, you get a yellow card very easily."
Even as a 16-year-old at Everton, Rooney had the prodigious strength to match his technique. He trained as a boy at his uncle's boxing club and still pulls on the gloves when working out in United's gym. Yet in conversation the tough guy vanishes. As he answers a series of questions about his team-mates for television, his face lights up and you see a boyish, gap-toothed grin.
He admits he looks to the example of Ryan Giggs, in Rooney's view not just the squad's best dresser but also, at 36, still the best trainer, along with Paul Scholes. "He does so many things, everything he does is right, really," Rooney said. "He looks after his body, he does yoga, he eats the right things, so if you want an example, he is the perfect player to look at." But not the player Nesta and Co will be looking at come Tuesday. That will be Rooney.