The big man is back! How Wayne Rooney became one of the world's best players again, by Oliver Holt

The last time Wayne Rooney came to the Veltins Arena, he left cloaked in ignominy, shown a red card and blamed for a defeat. Last night, he returned in triumph.

Last time, he was a listless part of a misfiring, fretful England side beaten by Portugal in the World Cup 2006 quarter finals.

Last night, he was the mesmerisingly brilliant hub of a stunning Manchester United performance that swept poor Schalke 04 aside and all but booked United's place in the Champions League Final at Wembley next month.

If he keeps playing like this, we can start talking about him as one of the best in the world again. Not a rival to Lionel Messi because he is a totally different player.

But a player who is starting to look as though he can realise all his massive potential again, a special player who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as a rare talent like Michel Platini.

After his fall, Rooney is climbing back towards the mountain-top again. He is still only 25 and, like Teddy Sheringham, he has a football brain that will not dim with age.

When Rooney plays like he did last night, there are few who can touch him for grace, creativity and menace. It is possible that the best years of his career still lie ahead of him.

Five years ago, his dismissal, for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho, was widely identified as the main cause of England's eventual elimination after a penalty shoot out.

Short of full fitness and isolated by England's misguided tactics, he was the personification of frustration and angst that night in Gelsenkirchen.

The intervening five years have brought plenty of highs and lows for England's most naturally gifted player but to many eyes, he is playing even better now that he was for the first two thirds of last season when he was in unstoppable goalscoring form.

He has always been an awful lot more than a goalscorer, of course, and his partnership with Javier Hernandez is finally allowing him to show off the full range of his skills.

Rarely in his six years at Old Trafford has Rooney been afforded the luxury of playing in his best position, off a front man.

But that is what is happening now and Rooney is revelling in the freedom that the role is giving him.

Last night, he looked something close to the complete footballer, a potent attacking force, a dangerous striker and a playmaker.

He was the hub of the United side that ran Schalke ragged in the first half, prompting his teammates again and again as they outclassed the Germans.

Rooney gave notice of what was to come in the third minute when he danced around Atsuto Uchida on the right edge of the Schalke area and curled a shot towards the top corner.

The shot took a slight deflection and it took the first of a long string of fine saves from Manuel Neuer to keep the ball out.

It helped Rooney that this United side is playing better and better football as their season reaches its climax.

Gone is the tentative team of earlier in the season, the team that went unbeaten for so long but was still damned with faint praise.

United look like the real deal again now. Not just champions elect in the Premier League but a force to be feared by everyone in Europe, too.

And for all the excellence last night of Hernandez, Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand and Ji-Sung Park, Rooney is still United's jewel. Not unpolished anymore, either, but gleaming more and more brightly.

There were times last night when Rooney was unplayable, spraying 50 yard passes on to the toe of Antonio Valencia and turning Christoph Metzelder so sweetly that the central defender had to rugby tackle him to pull him down.

But as chance after chance was either wasted or thwarted by Neuer, some of the frustration that Rooney felt that evening against Portugal began to resurface.

It was not that he lost his discipline. It was just that at the start of the second half, United looked exhausted by their inability to make all their previous dominance count.

The Schalke crowd rediscovered their voice and for 20 minutes the home side actually gave the United defence something to worry about.

It was fitting then that it should be Rooney who stopped the Schalke revival in its tracks by providing the inspiration for United to break the deadlock in the 67th minute.

There appeared little danger when he received the ball on the edge of the area but he spotted Ryan Giggs' run and threaded a perfect through-ball into his path. Giggs slotted it underneath Neuer.

Two minutes later, Rooney got the goal he deserved, too, running on to a pass from Hernandez to sweep the ball unerringly past the goalkeeper.

What a night for him. What a way to banish any demons that may have been lurking in his mind after what happened here in 2006.

The big man, as Rooney said once before, is back.

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