Sir Alex Ferguson believes Wayne Rooney is close to forcing his way into the top bracket of world footballers.
The 23-year-old England striker is set to make his 50th UEFA Champions League appearance for United against German champions Wolfsburg at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. The match will mark the fifth anniversary of Rooney announcing his arrival at United with a European debut hat-trick in the 6-2 win over Fenerbahce in September 2004.
The former Everton forward has taken on plenty of extra responsibility since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid in the summer. Rooney played much of last season on the left of midfield but has responded to being moved into a more central area with a fine run of form. He has managed six goals already this term and Ferguson thinks the striker is on the verge of being able to be compared favourably with the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka and Lionel Messi.
"He's blessed with certain ingredients that only great footballers have," Ferguson said. "It's the determination and hunger to win every match, every time he goes on the field, every training session. He's blessed with that and it'll never change for him. They're wonderful things to take into football.
"We sometimes wonder with the criticism about what footballers get paid but when you see that effort he puts in, he's worth every penny he's paid because he plays as if he means it," the coach went on. "He's been playing more central and he'll play centrally against Wolfsburg. But he's a funny animal, he says he's a good centre half. I wouldn't bet against that.
"He tells me he's a coach already, and a manager and a referee! He's got great desire and he can't put that down. It's always there," Ferguson added. "There are some great footballers out there like Kaka, Ronaldo and Messi. They're the three best players in the world and Wayne could easily get to that level with the right progress.
Ferguson believes that Rooney's marriage last year has also helped him mature as a player. "Marriage helps footballers," he said. "I've always been an advocate of players being married and settled down and you know where they are!"
Rooney's team-mate Jonny Evans agrees that the striker is in the form of his life. "He is a nightmare actually, especially when he is on your team because he is always complaining because he wants to win but that is what you want," Evans said. "He has had a great start to the season and scored a lot of goals and like the manager said he is playing in the middle now and that is probably his most dangerous position."
Ferguson hopes that Michael Owen will overcome a tight groin to feature against Wolfsburg and Patrice Evra should also be available after suffering a virus over the weekend. But South Korean star Park Ji-Sung may miss out with a similar illness.
Having overcome Besiktas 1-0 in their first game, Ferguson believes that Wolfsburg, who also won their opening Champions League match, 3-1 against CSKA Moscow, offer United's biggest threat in their group.
He added: "They won their first home game and three points gives you a good start. We won our first game away from home which was a good start for us. Wolfsburg probably are the main dangers to us qualifying. I think it's a measure of where they are and we admire that their approach reflects our approach to the game too. It may turn into a very open game. They do score goals but they also lose them.
"Even the game on Saturday was 4-2 and they do have interesting matches so we look forward to the game with a belief that if your home record is good, it gives you a good chance of qualifying for the next stage of the Champions League and over the years our home record has been pretty good."