When Wayne Rooney returned to England's 2006 World Cup training camp in Baden Baden from a check-up on his metatarsal injury, he famously proclaimed to teammates, "The big man is back." Under the benign Sven-Göran Eriksson, he was the biggest man. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, he is the little man.
Ferguson's decision to drop Rooney against Real Madrid on Tuesday evening was greeted with the fanfare usually reserved for players destined to depart Manchester United. David Beckham, 10 years earlier, made way for Juan Seba Verón when he hadn't played in over a month. Ruud van Nistelrooy drove away from the ground - and United - when the Reds hosted Charlton in 2006 as Giuseppe Rossi took his place. And Dimitar Berbatov's United career effectively ended when, as top scorer, he was overlooked in favour of perma-crock Michael Owen in the 2011 Champions League final squad.
The difference with Rooney is that Ferguson was proven right in his judgement. His relationship with the Croxteth striker has been the subject of conjecture ever since Rooney questioned his manager and club's ambition in October 2010, but Ferguson cares not a jot if the rumour mill goes into overdrive or whether Mrs Rooney tweets her astonishment at her hubby's demotion. Ferguson continues to exert control over players, irrespective of his age or however "big" his victims think they are.
It was not an unprecedented decision. Rooney was left out of the United XI which faced Internazionale in the last 16 back in 2009, but the circumstances were vastly different. Four years ago, United dominated the first leg in the San Siro and despite a goalless draw, won the second leg 2-0 with Rooney assisting Cristiano Ronaldo for the second. Real Madrid at Old Trafford was supposed to be the kind of game Rooney was made for, yet he found himself expendable.
Before the match Ferguson explained the decision was taken to free Danny Welbeck to apply pressure on Real's conductor Xabi Alonso, which succeeded. Mike Phelan, who stood in for a "distraught" Ferguson at the post-match press conference added: "The decision was tactical. Everybody was fit, everybody wanted to play but big decisions have to be made and the manager made those calls. We had the balance just right.
"We got the tactics right. At 0-0 we were comfortable and where we wanted to be. Then we scored to put ourselves in a commanding position and were in control. Then the game totally changed."
Rooney entered the fray when Cüneyt Çakır altered the match with United needing two goals in 20 minutes. He scooped an awkward volley over the bar and his vision on the ball was key to United's best spell of possession, yet ultimately this was one of Rooney's most chastening nights.
In both legs Welbeck had justified his inclusion with the away goal and his industry as he worried Sergio Ramos and Raphaėl Varane, yet he has scored just twice in seven months.
Ferguson was ambiguous when he explained Rooney was omitted because he "needs two games". Rooney came on as a substitute at QPR and completed the full 90 minutes against Norwich at the weekend, but his manager seemed to question his athleticism. Rooney's fitness for a professional footballer has been scrutinised too often in the last five years and his post-season indulgences have contributed to physical slumps.
Robin van Persie's subdued performance - as well as the referee's erroneous decision to send off Nani - aptly shifts the issue of Rooney's peripheral role into the background. Yet the overriding conclusion is Ferguson was justified, and for Rooney that is as galling as United's elimination.