Ferguson casts doubt on Rooney comeback

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The Independent Football

England and Manchester United need him desperately, but the first either may see of Wayne Rooney is after the World Cup qualifiers with Wales and Azerbaijan.

England and Manchester United need him desperately, but the first either may see of Wayne Rooney is after the World Cup qualifiers with Wales and Azerbaijan.

Rooney, who has not played since breaking a bone in his foot during the Euro 2004 quarter-final defeat by Portugal, has given a public pledge to be fit for the passionately anticipated encounter with Wales at Old Trafford on 9 October. However, yesterday Ferguson said the striker was still three weeks away from match fitness and although training more intensively than at any time since the injury, Rooney is still unable to kick a ball.

If the Manchester United manager's diagnosis is correct, Rooney could make his club debut against Middlesbrough six days before the Wales game. Ferguson may decide it is better for his start to be discreetly delayed.

It is unlikely Ferguson would want England to risk a man he has paid £27m for in what is likely to be an intensely physical contest with the Welsh - let alone a seven-hour flight to the Caucasus followed by a match on a rough, worn pitch in Baku against Azerbaijan five days later.

His determination may be all the greater, given his anger towards the French FA, who called up Louis Saha for a World Cup qualifier in the Faroe Islands after he had played a single match for Manchester United following a ligament injury. That injury was aggravated in France's dreadfully unimpressive 2-0 victory in Torshavn and Saha will miss both today's game at Bolton and United's Champions' League opener in Lyon.

"We played him against Everton because of our shortage of strikers but he was not ready for international football," said Ferguson. The bizarre logic that playing the Faroe Islands is a tougher proposition than Everton pales into insignificance compared to the latest setback sustained by a chronically injury-prone footballer. Ferguson commented wistfully that although United had the unusually low number of five players on international duty on Wednesday, two - Saha and Gary Neville - returned hurt. John O'Shea was injured while turning out for Ireland on Saturday.

Arsenal suffered less, unless you count Robert Pires' hurt feelings when told by his international manager, Raymond Domenech, that when not focused he was "useless". His club manager, Arsène Wenger, argued that internationals should be played on Fridays and Tuesdays to reduce burn-out before club fixtures. "I know Sir Alex is completely for this change as well. While the players are away for two weeks you expect disaster. It was a huge relief for me I had no injuries."

Ferguson needs Rooney every bit as much as Sven Goran Eriksson. United begin this morning seven points behind the leaders, having scraped together a mere three goals from four matches, 13 fewer than Arsenal. Their captain Roy Keane, as is his habit when he sees United drifting, was withering in his assessment, claiming Old Trafford no longer inspires fear in opponents.

"Look at Arsenal, and maybe Chelsea to a certain degree: they seem to have that mentality where they don't look like they are going to be beaten," he said. "Teams playing us think they have a chance now."

The Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, cast doubts upon United's championship challenge. "I've heard some United fans writing off their title hopes already. That just shows the pressure they are under. You are already talking about Arsenal losing three games and Manchester United winning three to overtake them. And how many are Arsenal going to lose?"

Hence the race to bring players who are either recovering from injuries or bans, back as quickly as possible. Ferguson admitted that "the sensible decision" would be to put Ruud van Nistelrooy, who has been recovering from a hernia operation, on the bench at the Reebok this afternoon, but United need a victory so badly the Dutchman may start. Gabriel Heinze, who introduced himself to the club's training headquarters on Monday, three months after signing from Paris St-Germain, will start immediately but as left-back rather than a central defender.

Rio Ferdinand's eight-month ban for refusing a drugs test expires next Sunday and yesterday Ferguson delivered the strongest possible hint that he would start his first available match, against Liverpool at Old Trafford a week on Monday.

"This game with Bolton is likely to be Rio Ferdinand's last match out domestically," Ferguson said. "He has been training fantastically, looking absolutely magnificent and it's something for us all to look forward to."