Fulham's other Hughes fears Rooney backlash

Experienced defender expects hungry striker to stir the wounded beast today
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The Independent Football

For all the pride he feels at having played a part in successive home wins over Manchester United, the impression is that Fulham's experienced centre-half Aaron Hughes is concerned that his team might merely have pulled the tail of a ferocious lion.

If retribution is to come at Craven Cottage this afternoon, it could be extracted, Hughes believes, by a hungry Wayne Rooney.

Not since a Champions' League game away to Bayern Munich last March has Rooney hit the net for club or country, the ankle sprain he picked up after doing so apparently handicapping him almost ever since. Yet that goal was his 34th of the season and had he not missed crucial matches in the run-in, there is reason to believe that United could have become Premier League champions for the fourth successive season and knocked out Bayern too.

Instead they began their League season on Monday as runners-up, achieving a comfortable victory over Hughes' first club Newcastle United, which he followed with interest and a certain apprehension. "They looked pretty good," he admitted. "So we know we're going to have a very tough task. It's not just the front men, it's the runs from midfield, when you've got [Paul] Scholes playing the way he is at the minute, picking out passes and bringing other people into the game. They carry an all-round threat. You try to stick to your shape and your game plan and you need a little bit of luck along the way."

Those qualities earned a 3-0 win over United last December, when the visitors had to play Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick in defence; and a 2-0 success the previous season, when both Scholes and Rooney were sent off, the latter departing with a valedictory punch at the corner-flag. Hughes had experienced the worst of that temperament too on a famous night in Belfast, when he captained Northern Ireland to victory over Sven Goran Eriksson's England with Rooney having to be restrained on the pitch by David Beckham.

There will be no attempt, however, to wind him up today. "I think that's just his character and how he plays," Hughes said. "Over the last few years he's controlled himself a lot better, shown a lot better temperament and that's why he's done so well. The best way to answer that criticism sometimes is to just get on with your game. I don't think you can take it out of your game completely because that's just the type of character he is. He has that hunger to win and I don't think anyone would want to take that away from him."

Hughes, like his namesake and manager Mark, is more concerned that a prime televised game in London is the sort of occasion on which the United striker might find his real form: "It's always the way that when people think he's having a bad spell that he turns round and knocks three in. That's the way football is.

"You look at any striker who hasn't scored in a few games and count the minutes and before you know where you are he'll be on six or seven in three games. I never read too much into that with a player of that quality." Quality too, he insists, that is by no means confined to goalscoring: "Strikers are judged on goals and a lot of their work away from that can be overlooked. You look at his runs, his touches, how he brings other people into the game, these things sometimes go unnoticed. So you can't take for granted that you're ever going to have an easier game against someone like Wayne Rooney."

Hughes makes the same point about the man who began the second half of England's recent international against Hungary alongside Rooney, Fulham's Bobby Zamora. "Again, a lot of the work he did used to go unnoticed. Last season was great for him to get that many goals and he finally got the credit he deserved for two years' hard work."

Scoring more goals in Europe than the Premier League, Zamora rather mirrored Fulham's season. This time Hughes believes they can climb back into the top half of the table, having sacrificed that position last spring to concentrate on a thrilling run to the Europa League final. They do so under a new manager and facing the possibility of losing their goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer to Arsenal, yet the philosophical Hughes, who has already played under three managers at Fulham as well as more than he can remember at Newcastle, takes it all in his stride. "If he went we'd certainly miss him. But it's not often you get the chance to go and play for one of the top four teams in the country. It's a big opportunity."

Like the one offered to Fulham – but also to Rooney – this afternoon.

Fulham vs Manchester United is live on Sky Sports 1 at 3.30pm today