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So long, Wayne? Cup final may be Rooney's last United game
In this Jan. 21, 2017 file photo, Manchester United's Wayne Rooney acknowledges the fans after the English Premier League soccer match between Stoke City and Manchester United at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke on Trent, England. | AP Photo/Rui Vieira, File
MANCHESTER, England — Wayne Rooney could finish his Manchester United career by hoisting a European trophy, surrounded by jubilant teammates and with fireworks exploding around him.
Still, it wouldn't be quite the end he would have envisioned after 13 years at the English club.
Rooney is set to be a substitute for United on Wednesday in the Europa League final against Ajax in Stockholm, a role which the club's captain and record scorer has become increasingly accustomed to this season. Depending on the situation in the match, he might not even come on.
That's how it's been for most of this season, watching from afar at a club where he was once the main man.
Talk about United's key players ahead of a final that means so much to the English club, and many would say Marcus Rashford or Paul Pogba or Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Few would say Rooney.
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That's the reason why this game might be his last for United despite having two years left on his contract, why he has been linked for much of the past few months with a return to former club Everton, a move to MLS in the United States, or a short spell in the Chinese league.
United is moving on under Jose Mourinho and Rooney is being left behind. Speculation grows that James Rodriguez will be moving to Old Trafford from Real Madrid, adding to the list of attackers who will be ahead of Rooney in the pecking order next season.
There was a symbolic moment Sunday on the final day of the Premier League season. Rooney was one of the few senior players picked for a virtually meaningless match against Crystal Palace—Mourinho rested most of his Europa League starters—and he was replaced in the final minutes by 16-year-old attacking midfielder Angel Gomes, who became the first player born this millennium to play in the Premier League.
Rooney applauded all corners of Old Trafford and walked off with his head down. Was he saying goodbye to the stadium he has played at since 2004, when—at 18—he made a spectacular debut by scoring a hat trick in a Champions League game against Fenerbahce?
Since then, he has racked up 253 goals for United to surpass Bobby Charlton's longstanding club record. He is also England's record scorer with 53 goals, again overtaking Charlton.
He has won the Premier League title five times, the FA Cup once, the League Cup three times and the Champions League once. That last trophy came in 2008 when he was part of the famous frontline containing Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.
Rooney is no longer the force of old, unable to influence matches in the same way or tear around the field harassing opponents. Games can pass him by and there is the fear that, after 15 years in the spotlight of the soccer world, he is simply burnt out.
In his last appearance at a news conference, prior to the second leg of the Europa League semifinals against Celta Vigo, Rooney said his priority at this stage of his career was to "play football." When asked if that meant at United, he added: "Of course."
He will end this season likely having started 25 of United's 64 games. Often, he was an unused substitute.
Mourinho said he would not sell Rooney against his wishes, so it is for the player to decide if Wednesday is the last time he dons a United jersey.
Whether he actually makes it onto the field remains to be seen.