Manchester United's Wayne Rooney has declared ahead of his club's most exacting test of the season – against Real Madrid at Old Trafford on Tuesday night – that he believes he is about to enter the peak five-year period of his career and that he will hit the 25-goal tally for the season which his manager has set him.
United, for whom Phil Jones is only marginally likely to be fit to build on the 1-1 draw secured against Jose Mourinho's side in Spain, face the acutely difficult balance of being more on the offensive against the Spanish side than they were at the Bernabeu Stadium, while shutting down the visitors' attacking threat. While Michael Carrick, another critical component of tomorrow night's plans, admits it is "difficult" to know how to strike a balance, Rooney has declared that his own fitness problems of this season are behind him.
"The age I'm at now is the time when most players start to peak – from now and across the next four or five years. Hopefully, that will be the case and the team will benefit from that," the 27-year-old said. "I haven't played as many games as I normally would have at this point in the season and I do feel fresh and ready for that battle until the end of the season.
"With the way the manager rotates the team there will be a lot of players who are feeling fresh as well. Some teams tend to field the same team every week and when you get towards the end of the season you can lose the sharpness because of it. We should definitely be well prepared.
"It's been a bit of a stop-start season for me, with a couple of injuries, which has been a bit disappointing. I just want to keep myself fit until the end of the season now and play a part in as many games as I can to help the team be successful."
The landmark of 200 Manchester United goals is only five away for Rooney, whose difficulties have been compounded by the fact that it can take two or three games for him to hit full form after injury. A sinus infection had forced him to miss a further two league games before Saturday's 4-0 demolition of Norwich City – his 353rd for Ferguson – which he capped with a sublime strike.
"It's great to have played so many games for this club at such a young age and it would be nice to get to that 200 mark," Rooney said. "It would be an achievement I'd be proud of and, hopefully, I can get there between now and the end of the season."
His limited starts – 16 in the Premier League – leave Rooney nine short of Ferguson's 25-goal target but he is bullish about the prospects of hitting it. "Yes, of course I can," he said. "It's great for us to have so many forwards who can play well and score goals."
If Jones is missing against Madrid – and since Ferguson claims he only resumed light training on Friday that seems likely – the pressure on Carrick to protect the back four from the threat led by Cristiano Ronaldo is all the greater.
"We can't [be too gung-ho]," said Carrick, whose own display against Chris Hughton's side was in keeping with a hugely impressive season for him. "I don't think we will and I don't think they will; it's hard to know, isn't it? The game over there was tight at times, but we could have come away with a 3-1 win and so could they. So it's about taking our chances. With the strike power we've got and the strike power they've got, both teams will have to defend well. You have to have the complete game in many respects."
Ferguson has said he was "shocked" by Madrid's standards in their midweek Copa del Rey win over Barcelona and Carrick agreed that it had provided a sense of what the Premier League leaders are up against.
"It's not very often teams go to the Nou Camp and come away with a scoreline like that," Carrick said. "They played some textbook counter-attacking football in many ways, absorbed the possession Barcelona had and hit them on the break. That's Madrid's strength. With the players they have, and the spaces other teams leave, that's what we'll have to try to counteract."
Shinji Kagawa, who struggled to leave an imprint in the Bernabeu, despite being given a start by Ferguson, expressed hope that his hat-trick on Saturday would be the start of him compensating for what, to his mind, has been a slightly disappointing start to his Old Trafford career. "I wasn't able to make too much of an impact so far, so maybe I've made it now," the Japanese striker said.
Goals: Manchester United Kagawa 45, 76, 87, Rooney 90.
Substitutions: Manchester United Welbeck 7 (Van Persie, 66), Cleverley (Anderson, 74). Norwich City Kamara (Hoolahan, 72), Bennett (Snodgrass, 74), Becchio (Holt, 90).
Bookings: Norwich City Snodgrass, Garrido, Johnson, Turner. Man of the match Kagawa. Match rating 6/10. Possession: Manchester United 65%. Norwich City 35%. Attempts on target: Manchester United 7. Norwich City 0. Referee N Swarbrick (Lancashire). Att 75,586.