LONDON, Oct 17, 2010 (AFP) - Sir Alex Ferguson's latest snub to Wayne Rooney has fuelled fresh speculation that the Manchester United superstar could be heading for the Old Trafford exit.
Ferguson left Rooney on the bench for Saturday's Premier League clash with West Bromwich Albion, where the Red Devils squandered a two-goal lead as the Baggies fought back to snatch a 2-2 draw.
Wayne Rooney (L) starts the match on the substitutes bench. AFP
Ferguson did not comment about the decision to omit Rooney, a move that followed speculation of a rift after the striker last week contradicted the United boss's claims he was injured by stating he was fully fit.
It came after an earlier decision to drop Rooney for his return to Everton in September, which followed lurid tabloid revelations about the 24-year-old England international's private life.
Since then Rooney has been in and out of the United starting line-up and looking like only a pale imitation of the potent attacking force who was crowned the Footballer of the Year last season.
The Sunday Mirror reported Sunday that relations between Ferguson and Rooney had broken down and that the United boss would seek to sell their prized asset in the January transfer window, with Real Madrid seen as the front-runner.
Club insiders quoted by the newspaper said Rooney was slowly being "frozen out", comparing the present situation to the circumstances leading up to the departure of David Beckham from United to Real Madrid in 2003.
Negotiations over an extension to Rooney's 100,000-pounds a week contract, which has only another 18 months to run, have also stalled, the paper reported.
Other commentators meanwhile said Rooney was playing with fire by contradicting Ferguson's claims that he was nursing an ankle injury.
"At best it was naive for him not to see that contradicting Ferguson would be seen as provocative," Paul Hayward wrote in The Observer.
"At worst he was asserting his independence as part of a scheme to leave Old Trafford for Real Madrid."
The Sunday Mirror said Rooney's decision to contradict Ferguson could prove fatal as the manager had been trying to shield the striker through the storm caused by allegations that he cheated on his pregnant wife with prostitutes.
"If Sir Alex Ferguson says you've got two heads, you've got two heads. His word is final," a source told the paper.
"In his view, Wayne was too engulfed by the prostitute sleaze to play properly - and the best way of dealing with that was to cite the ankle problem.
"Then, to have that thrown back at him by Wayne and to be so publicly contradicted in the most embarrassing manner ... It was just too big an insult to Sir Alex's authority to be allowed to let pass."
The Observer meanwhile noted that Ferguson had not been afraid of off-loading iconic Manchester United players in the past, selling Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane when he felt they had either outlived their usefulness or had challenged his authority.
"In each case the manager risked a counterblast from the supporters but pressed on anyway, sure of his ground, sure that United would always outlast any individual and could renew themselves," the paper commented.
"After Van Nistelrooy, remember, a new title-winning side was hewn around Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo."
Ferguson's immediate attention meanwhile is on his team's faltering league form, which suffered another blow on Saturday with two more dropped points against West Bromwich Albion.
It was the third time this season United failed to take maximum points after leading -- and Ferguson admitted his team needed to rediscover their killer instinct after an "unacceptable" performance.
"We created some really glorious chances in the first half to kill the game off," Ferguson said afterwards.
"It's frustrating because it turned a really top performance into one where we've dropped two points. It's not acceptable for anyone -- the supporters, myself, the players.
"We really need to dig a little bit deeper when we get chances to kill teams off."