The media is reporting up and down that Wayne Rooney is set to refuse a new contract with Manchester United after having a tiff with Sir Alex Ferguson, and the Blues have been named as a major contender to land the out-of-form prodigy (along with Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the two Milan teams). Normally I wouldn't give this sort of rumour-mongering much credence, but since we're now being involved, I thought I'd throw out some quick thoughts about the situation.
If you're interested, check out The Busby Babe for further information as they cover the situation.
Do We Even Want Him?
Wayne Rooney can be a fantastic player. His movement and strength are both phenomenal assets, he's got great vision and technique, and a ferocious, accurate shot that's the envy of most players in the league. He's also surprisingly quick for a man built like a potato with legs. On form, Rooney is almost the perfect striker - he can operate up top by himself, battering down defences Drogba-style, or he can operate fluidly in a multiple-man attack. He's even willing to drop back into midfield to have a go at being a playmaker, as shown in his recent four-assist game for England against Bulgaria. At times, last year's title campaign was Chelsea vs. Rooney rather than us vs. United as the Little Caveman Who Could put his team on his back and ran for huge stretches of the season. At his best (and even at his normal-est), Wayne Rooney is unplayable.
That said, Rooney's been somewhat short of form for almost half a year, since the first leg of United's Champions League quarter-final tie against Bayern Munich (where he went off with an ankle injury). In a World Cup where he'd been widely touted as the player to watch, Rooney was a primary culprit in England's poor play, standing around looking lethargic as many wondered where the player we were used to had gone. His indifference has extended to the new season, and Alex Ferguson has gone so far as to drop him from the starting XI, citing concerns about his ankle. Rooney, for his part, claims that he's fully fit.
Assuming that Rooney's catastrophic loss of form is temporary, he'd fit neatly into Chelsea's 4-3-3 in Nicolas Anelka's spot. Rooney's ability to wander around the pitch, gravitating to exactly where the opposition most sincerely does not want him to be seems to me to be a natural fit for an interchanging front three, and there is absolutely no way in the world a defence would enjoy facing both Rooney and Drogba at the same time. He'd clearly be a desirable purchase on multiple levels, dramatically improving the team while depleting the talent of our rivals for the domestic crown and the Champions League.
However, we can't just assume that Rooney's play would be magically restored by a move away from United. We need to know what's wrong with him if we can figure out how to fix it, because if he's permanently gone, Chelsea would be staring at another Shevchenko.
What's Wrong With Wayne?
Rooney is pretty clearly playing without nearly the intensity we're used to seeing out of him. What might explain his lacklustre movement both in the World Cup and the current season? We've got four scenarios that I can think of:
He's still hurt. United rushed Rooney back from an ankle injury in a desperate attempt to catch Chelsea in the league last year. He also picked up a minor looking ankle knock in the Champions League game against Rangers. If he's favouring his ankle, he won't be able to move around quite so freely as we're used to. Is it true? Maybe. It certainly would explain his lack of mobility, and Ferguson has asserted that the ankle is keeping him out of some matches, but Rooney himself claims he's totally fit.
A lack of confidence. I don't really understand this myself, but the theory goes that football players are notoriously fragile creatures who need to believe in themselves to perform on the pitch. This 'explains' why Fernando Torres is currently terrible, or why goals seem to come in streaks. I hate this sort of amateur psychology, but I do concede that Rooney's form (plus the attacks on him via our friends the tabloids) might be affecting him on the field.
He's sulking. Again, I'm wary of poking around inside an athlete's head, but what if the reported rift between Rooney and his manager has resulted in him deliberately holding back during games. This might explain the season, although it doesn't really shed any light on the miserable World Cup performance.
All of the above. Who even knows? It could be a mix of everything listed above - an injury, a dip in confidence, a reaction to the sex scandal, and a fight with his manager.
Will United Sell?
If Rooney is indeed refusing to sign a new contract with United, he's set to leave on a free transfer after the 2011/12 season, in about 20 months. If he's really desperate to get out of his deal, he might be able to buy himself out of his contract as early as next summer (for the relatively paltry sum of £4.5M). There's a lot of financial pressure on United right now, and the prevailing feeling is that if Rooney will not sign a new contract, they need to cash in on him rather than seeing him walk for free - and his transfer value deprecates sharply in each window between now and 2012.
If the rumours are true, Rooney is almost certainly being sold, and soon.
Will United Sell to Chelsea?
I'm not convinced that Manchester United would be willing to sell their star player to their fiercest rivals, but they may run out of options. I think we can rule out Barcelona and Inter Milan for financial reasons, and AC Milan have just spent some ridiculous amount in assembling a forward line of Robinho, Zlatan Ibrahomovic, and Alexandre Pato, so they're probably out too. This leaves Real Madrid, Chelsea, and, yes, Manchester City.
Real are probably United's best shot. This gets Rooney safely out of the country, where he's unlike to come back to haunt them. They should have (or be able to borrow) the money to finance his transfer and salary, and coach Jose Mourinho is a long-term admirer. Rooney, for his part, would once again be able to hook up with old partner Cristiano Ronaldo. I can definitely see this happening.
If not, Chelsea would probably be a far preferable Rooney destination for United than City. A hypothetical transfer would represent a sea-change at the pinnacle of the top flight, but things seem like they're going that way anyway. If he moves to City, however, the balance of power in Manchester swings completely towards the blue, a situation United would probably find completely and utterly intolerable. While Carlos Tevez defecting was a minor annoyance, losing Rooney to their upstart rivals would be the end of the United era in Manchester and the beginning of a strange, new world. They're probably going to do everything to stop that from happening, no matter how much Rooney might want to tweak his current employers.
Could Chelsea Afford Him?
In a word - yes. It's been a few years since Chelsea have made a major splash, so people tend to forget about the purchasing power they still have. Roman Abramovich has made it clear that he expects the team to be self sufficient, but has also made it clear that he's willing to shell out on a superstar if given the opportunity. There's no doubting that Wayne Rooney would fit that bill. Realistically, Chelsea's attempts to control payroll have focused on axing average players with high salaries (Joe Cole, Michael Ballack, etc) rather than avoiding high performance, high price players. I can't imagine that the Blues would balk at adding Rooney to the roster. Accommodating a major raise shouldn't be a big problem, as Rooney doesn't even earn that much - at £5.2M a year, he's only the 23rd highest paid player in the world.
When I started writing this piece, I figured that Rooney coming to West London was both a pipe dream and undesirable. A couple of hours later and I'm a little more sold on both the possibility and desirability of the move - but I still don't think it will happen. Assuming Rooney does end up leaving, I'd expect Madrid as his final destination.