No prizes for guessing who was at the front of the line when the training ground sprints started in the brilliant Carrington sunshine yesterday morning. It was Wayne Rooney, beaming at Nani, looking like a formidable force as he leapt into action over the cones. Rooney has a way of looking more diminutive when the world is weighing on his shoulders and standing taller than his 5ft 8in frame when it's turning in his favour, and it's "the big man" who's suddenly back.
Three goals in four games, a successful reincarnation as a midfielder against Arsenal, and he is beginning to resemble the old recognisable form again. As Manchester United seek to maintain their hopes of a treble in a delicately poised Champions League tie with Marseilles at Old Trafford this evening, his manager did not reject the notion that his absence – physically and psychologically – from the earlier parts of the season will be to his club's benefit now.
That Sir Alex Ferguson should have included Antonio Valencia in his assessment of the restored assets was significant considering that the Ecuadorean – finally back for 45 minutes of football on Saturday – is the player whose name Rooney always says he most wants to see on the teamsheet. "They are both young and have great energies," the manager said. "Antonio going to be available now is a great boost to us. Hopefully it will help us. But the team needs to step up too. The team needs to perform to win the league."
This tone was not bullish. Ferguson's disinterest in the media paraphernalia which surrounds the Champions League is becoming more evident as the months roll by. But the progression to an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City brought talk yesterday of trebles and fixture permutations – subjects which, though he wouldn't say as much, exhilarate him and reveal that his club are still standing on all fronts in a season when they have not sparkled.
There will be tension tonight against Didier Deschamps' side, fortified by the return of forward André-Pierre Gignac, whose danger is all the greater after the 0-0 draw on the Mediterranean coast. But Ferguson's injury problems are not as bad as they had seemed.
Nani plunged into the familiar "boxes" keep-ball drill, confounding the notion created by Ferguson's press conference last Friday that United were on tenterhooks about the crevice in his shin, caused by Jamie Carragher's tackle, becoming infected. "There's a good chance [he'll play]," said his manager yesterday. Michael Carrick is also fit, contrary to expectations, though Ferguson's disclosure that Nemanja Vidic had taken a knock against Arsenal – the Serbian centre-half did not train yesterday – will add to the tension until the teamsheet appears at 7pm. "He should be ok. He's tough enough," Ferguson murmured.
Two first-half goals are what United really need, which is why the Rooney/Valencia axis might be most significant. No one has been such an able provider of headed goals for Rooney than Valencia – it was at this stage of the Champions League last season that he sent in the cross in San Siro which delivered the first of two Rooney goals against Milan. The same combination delivered Rooney's decisive goal against Aston Villa in the Carling Cup final.
The improved finishing is the part of Valencia's game which United have made. Ferguson had a hunch that the quality – which marks him out as more of an Andrei Kanchelskis than a Ronaldo – was in him. It was visible when Valencia memorably dispatched a low Rooney cross in the Community Shield last August with calmness and not inconsiderable technical skill. This is what Ferguson has been missing since the midfielder turned his foot on a wet Old Trafford pitch against Rangers on the night United began their Champions League campaign, breaking an ankle and damaging ligaments.
United need him, with one of the most congested and dramatic run-ins even Ferguson has known, if their journey towards a European Wembley final continues. We may hear the full vent of Ferguson's fury if, as is quite possible, United face a Champions League quarter-final second leg and the FA Cup semi-final with City in the space of three days and lose the latter – though for now we get only the sense of anticipation. "It's an incredible draw," Ferguson said of the City tie. "A lot of people thought this would be a better final, but that's disrespectful to the other teams. That's taken away from us now. It's a straightforward derby semi-final and it should be a fantastic game. You have to face that [fixture] situation a million times. You have to get on with it. We won't be withdrawing so we will be there."
Ferguson was prickly when an individual from the French media contingent suggested United had gone to Marseilles for a 0-0 draw. "I thought Marseilles went for the 0-0. Maybe they are the ones who are confident." He knows from the goalless first legs in Madrid (2000) and Monaco (1998) that deadlock can bring elimination. In all European competition, United have won only five of the nine ties in which the first game finished goalless.
Rooney didn't look unduly concerned, though. Of Valencia's return, he said: "I can't tell you how good it is to see him back out there. He looked like he'd never been away [on Saturday.] It's fantastic for him and fantastic for us."
Dimitar Berbatov v Gabriel Heinze
With his technical prowess, it is surprising Berbatov has not scored a Champions League goal since October 2008. To change that, he will need to outwit the former United player Heinze who is expected to move inside to centre-back.
Paul Scholes v Stéphane Mbia
Scholes has been a hero on many Old Trafford European nights; Mbia, the imposing destroyer, will have to stop him having an impact tonight. Expect tackles aplenty: Mbia has nine yellow cards so far this season, Scholes, 10.
Rafael v André Ayew
The Manchester United full-back must be wary of Ayew's dribbling ability. The young Brazilian will need to follow his confident performance against Arsenal with more of the same against the talented Ghanaian.
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