Ferguson looks to Saha for Ruud awakening

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The Independent Football

Bookmakers are not generally known for serious errors of judgement, and the odds of up to 25-1 available against Louis Saha to finish the new Premiership season in possession of the Golden Boot can be taken as a reasonably accurate gauge of the 28-year-old Frenchman's potential to finish in front of his countryman, Thierry Henry, and Chelsea's £30 million new arrival, Andriy Shevchenko, as the leading goalscorer.

Saha, for whom Manchester United paid £12.8m in January 2004, has scored only 15 times in the Premiership since then, although injuries have limited him to 28 starts. In this summer's World Cup finals he was no more than a bit-part player. Yet the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, believes Saha can fill the void left by Ruud van Nistelrooy, even to the extent of challenging the 20-goals-a-year average achieved by the Dutchman in his five Premiership seasons.

Ferguson has seen that promise in Saha since he scored twice for Fulham against United on the opening day of the 2001-02 season. Now he feels that the return of the west London side to Old Trafford this afternoon can be the starting point for Saha to deliver a full return.

"Louis is a fantastic player," said Ferguson. "He has pace, power, has two good feet and is good in the air; everything you could look for in a striker. Last season he did not start playing until November yet still finished with 15 goals. Given a full season he will definitely score more than 20, I've no doubt about that."

Saha's form over the second half of the last campaign enabled him to displace Van Nistelrooy as Ferguson's first-choice frontman, which ultimately led to the latter joining Real Madrid. Ferguson's faith in Saha has not precluded him from scouring the European market for "someone who could guarantee us Ruud's goals", but after apparently backing away from a move for Fernando Torres, he has concluded "there is no one". After a summer spent watching Chelsea and Liverpool take turns to unveil high-profile signings, United fans may be forgiven a measure of disappointment if their side's line-up this afternoon is little changed from the one that ended last season. Yet Ferguson insists he starts with a stronger hand.

"If we don't have long-term injuries, we are better equipped," he said. "It was injuries that killed us last season." But he cannot yet call on a fully fit squad, knee injuries ruling out both Gabriel Heinze and Nemanja Vidic, while Michael Carrick, the £18.6m signing from Tottenham, is a week away from full training after the ankle ligament damage he incurred earlier this month. Alan Smith is due to return from his double leg break next month.

Wayne Rooney will play, albeit only for one match before he and Paul Scholes begin three-match bans triggered by their sendings-off in the Amsterdam tournament. Their absence will make it harder for Ferguson to achieve his immediate aim of regaining the momentum of last season's finish, though it does not dampen his enthusiasm for the return of Scholes, who missed the final four months of last season.

"When you watch videos of Paul in action, you appreciate the talent you have been missing, and his form in pre-season has been a revelation," he said. "He is just a sensational player."

Assuming Ferguson has no further targets beyond his pursuit of Owen Hargreaves, it is likely that Scholes, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo will be the players charged with easing the burden on Saha. In Ronaldo's case, dealing with the inevitable backlash to his involvement with Rooney's World Cup red card is an extra hurdle to overcome, although Ferguson has full confidence that the Portugal forward will have a thick enough skin.

"Eric Cantona and David Beckham had to deal with that and they both overcame it," he said. "The crowds can boo all they like, but I don't believe Cristiano will let it affect him."