Neville blow softened by Rooney return

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson has suffered more defensive misery after learning Gary Neville has been ruled out for a month, but the Manchester United manager has received a major lift on the striking front.

Neither Wayne Rooney nor Louis Saha will be on the plane to Lyon today for United's latest Champions' League bow but both are nearing the end of their present fitness fight.

Saha has dispelled fears of a long-term knee problem by insisting he has targeted next Monday's Premiership encounter with Liverpool for his comeback, while Ferguson will have been heartened by the presence of Rooney at yesterday's training session.

Though Ferguson has insisted he will not rush Rooney's debut following his £27m move from Everton, it is clear the teenager is on track to recover from his broken foot within the three-week timescale set by his manager on Friday.

That means Rooney could make his first United appearance against Middlesbrough on 3 October, proving his fitness in time for England's key World Cup qualifier against Wales six days later.

Unfortunately, Neville is virtually certain to miss that match after a scan revealed the full-back has suffered a hairline fracture of his left knee.

The news could not have come at a worse time for Ferguson, who was finally starting to see his squad come together after a catalogue of problems which threaten to derail the club's season even though it is barely a month old.

Neville's defensive colleagues Rio Ferdinand, Gabriel Heinze, Wes Brown and John O'Shea have already missed matches this season for various reasons, contributing largely to the defensive frailties so evident in Saturday's 2-2 draw at Bolton.

That result meant United begin their latest European campaign having gained just six points from their opening five games ­ their worst Premiership start, which has seen them already fall nine adrift of champions Arsenal.

Phil Neville is expected to replace his brother at right back.

Saha has been plagued by Achilles and knee problems since he completed his £12.8m move from Fulham last January. He missed United's opening four games of the season with a medial ligament problem, which flared up again last Wednesday, forcing him out of France's win against the Faroe Islands after just seven minutes.

It sparked immediate fears that the player could be out for several weeks, although these have apparently now been allayed. "It is just a matter of giving it time," Saha said. "I wasn't fully recovered when I came back, so now I must make sure it is 100 per cent right."

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