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United striker Wayne Rooney plays Saturday at Old Trafford. ((Alex Livesey/Getty Images))

Manchester United's insistence that Wayne Rooney will not be sold in January has failed to quell widespread speculation by British media that the England striker is on his way out of Old Trafford following a bust up with manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

British newspapers reported Monday that Rooney has told the club he will not sign a new contract, with United's attempt to downplay the furor surrounding its most important player meriting barely a mention.

Rooney's status as arguably England's one genuine world-class player ensured the story made it onto the front page of several papers. For the most part, it even pushed coverage of Liverpool's defeat in its first match under its new American owners to the margins of the back pages.

But where could Rooney go?

The Sun and The Times suggest that Real Madrid would be favourite to sign the 24-year-old Rooney, just over a year after the Spanish powerhouse finally succeeded in taking Cristiano Ronaldo against United's wishes.

But several other papers point out that Rooney, who has previously declared a lack of interest in playing overseas, could be forced into a highly divisive move to Manchester City.

United's bitter local rival has spent more than 300 million pounds ($486.8 million Cdn) on players over the past two years and, backed by the billions of owner Sheikh Mansour, is probably the only English club to have the financial resources to sign Rooney.

City already tempted Argentina striker Carlos Tevez to switch allegiance when his short-term deal with United expired, alienating fans who had idolized him and giving them a new hate figure.

Rooney is similarly lionized by United fans but his contract expires at the end of the 2011-12 season, when he would be eligible to walk out on United on a free transfer.

That would also weaken United's bargaining position when it comes to haggling over a transfer fee, almost certainly ensuring that Rooney would cost far less than the world-record 80 million pounds ($129.8 million) Madrid paid for Cristiano Ronaldo last year.

But even a fee similar to the 26 million pounds ($42.2 million) United paid for the 18-year-old Rooney in 2004 is beyond most English clubs.

Rooney's other option would appear to be a move to Spain with Madrid or Barcelona, the latter of which is, like Rooney, sponsored by American sports equipment manufacturer Nike.

But Rooney has shown little interest in expanding his cultural horizons and high-profile British players have struggled to adapt to life overseas in the past.

England great Jimmy Greaves scored 44 goals in 57 internationals but lasted only 12 games at AC Milan before, homesick and alienated by a rigorous training regime, returning to London in 1961.

Wales striker Ian Rush managed a single season at Juventus in the 1980s before his inability to adapt to Italy's defensive football and culture led to him rejoining Liverpool.

More recently, Paul Gascoigne, a player with whom Rooney is often compared for physique, power and talent, spent three injury-plagued years at Lazio. Having decided against learning Italian, he struggled with boredom in Rome and regularly clashed with authority figures.

Like Gascoigne, Rooney has been photographed smoking cigarettes and frequenting nightclubs. The married Rooney's private life made front page news this year and Ferguson's handling of the fallout is reportedly the source of the player's unhappiness with the club.

Paul Ince, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy are among the high-profile players Ferguson has dispensed with when his relationship with them has broken down, but Ronaldo was unusual in leaving of his own accord.

With Tevez at City and Ronaldo in Madrid, Rooney's departure in similar circumstances would leave United without three of the four forwards who terrorized defences to lead the club to its most recent Premier League title in 2009.

Saddled with debt and with few young players coming through the ranks, it is debatable whether United could cope without Rooney.

But with Ferguson key in channelling Rooney's aggression and skill, it is just as debatable whether Rooney can cope without United.