It is not just Wayne Rooney who isn't working. Sir Alex Ferguson's side touched down yesterday afternoon in a country bracing itself for a general strike, planned today in protest at Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero's austerity measures.
But while Spain is not entirely sold on the strike, which the trade unions are forcing through in an attempted show of their strength, Ferguson disclosed last night that Rooney will be missing for "two to three weeks" – leaving the England manager, Fabio Capello, with only Darren Bent and Peter Crouch from his recognised pool of strikers for the European qualifier against Montenegro on 12 October. Rooney's absence extends to a seventh month a miserable period which began with the ankle sprain sustained in Manchester United's last Champions League trip, to Munich in March.
In seasons past Rooney's latest ankle injury, sustained at Bolton Wanderers on Sunday, would be deemed disastrous. United's peculiarly bad record on Spanish soil – one win in 18 attempts heading into this evening's encounter with Valencia – also includes a curious paucity of goals. Five of the club's last seven games in the country have been goalless.
But there is a sense that the damage sustained at the Reebok – which may or may not be linked to a heavy turn Rooney took on the ankle just before half-time against Rangers in the Champions League two weeks ago – has come at a convenient time. Ferguson was irritable when pressed on the nature of the injury – "It's an ankle injury. What do you want me to say? Do you want me to describe every ligament? Christ" – because he wants Rooney in the background, along with the pantomime which seems to accompany him at this tumultuous time in his life.
When he sprained that ankle in Munich last March, Ferguson was desperate to rush his talisman back for the home leg of the quarter-final. This time it is tempting to see the setback as a convenient one, which hands Rooney the two-week international break to recover himself and his mind. He may miss only United's home match with Sunderland on Saturday and be back to face West Bromwich Albion two weeks' later, all of a fit with the solution already proposed by former United favourite Bryan Robson – that Rooney should be given two weeks to go away and resolve his life.
If only, from a United perspective, he were the only problem. Uncertainty continues to surround the fitness Rio Ferdinand, whom Ferguson suggested last night was still in need of "another game or two" after "five months" of absence and is by no means a certainty to start here. Ferdinand, who was troubled by his back for most of last season, spent most of yesterday's two-hour flight on his feet, before emerging into Spain's east-coast sunshine clutching what seemed to be a booster cushion. He was at the front of a team jog around the steeply-banked Mestalla Stadium in the warm evening, though a tie like tonight's represents a more stringent test.
Ferdinand has played no part in 61 out of United's last 103 games dating back to December 2008 but here, in a walled city which once boasted 12 defensive gates, United need him to become a familiar part of the ramparts again, and certainly more impermeable than an out-of-form Jonny Evans has been in the past few weeks, if they are to avoid defeat and a scramble to qualify.
Also missing from yesterday's flight were Paul Scholes, who will be out for 10 days with a calf injury, and Gary Neville, whose return has been further delayed by a virus. With Ryan Giggs's hamstring pull keeping him out, as expected, it is a less experienced United side than Ferguson would have liked heading into such a difficult tie against the early leaders of La Liga.
All told, another of those goalless draws would probably suit him, especially given Valencia's 4-0 win in their opening match away to Bursaspor. The World Cup trophy Spain won this summer is currently on display at the science museum in the city, where some have queued for three hours to see it, and midfielder Juan Mata has promised some of the flowing football which won it. "In physical terms, we'll have to be at our peak," he added. "But we also have to stick to our football philosophy and keep possession of the ball and hopefully that will be enough."
Ferguson provided no sense that Michael Owen's three goals in two games might be enough to hand him a chance to start for United tonight. "He is fit, his training performances have been terrific and I think he's improved since he came to our club," the manager said. Dimitar Berbatov may be the man to lead the line. Ferguson tends to opt for a 4-5-1 formation on occasions such as this.
Ferguson was in jocular mood as he served a reminder that he had been involved in a few general strikes in his time and his eyes lit up when asked for the secrets of 24 years in one job. "If there's a secret, I can only say you need energy, you have to live your life the right way and I've always been a saint. Eat the right food, drink the right wine and you'll be OK." Something for Rooney to digest as he embarks on his leave of absence. "Nobody likes to be injured, it's straightforward," Ferguson said of him. "He''d like to be out here training and playing with us."
Results so far Bursaspor 0 Valencia 4, Man United 0 Rangers 0.
Man United's remaining fixtures Tonight: Valencia (a); 20 Oct: Bursaspor (h); 2 Nov: Bursaspor (a); 24 Nov: Rangers (a); 7 Dec: Valencia (h).Reuse content