Rooney ready to take leading role on United's grand stage

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The Independent Football

There have been marginally more expensive players than Wayne Rooney to have made their Manchester United debuts and there have been marginally better footballers, but there has been nothing like the shiver of anticipation that has accompanied the teenager's first appearance at Old Trafford.

One of the principal reasons for Rooney's abandonment of Everton was that Manchester United would give him the proper platform upon which his talents could shine. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs make for a formidable supporting cast and the stage of a Champions' League night in Manchester is an appropriate one.

The only debate in Sir Alex Ferguson's mind is whether Rooney should start the match against Fenerbahce alongside him on the bench or Van Nistelrooy on the pitch. The odds favour the pitch. It would, said the Manchester United manager, be fairer to the boy to leave him on the bench, but that has never been Ferguson's way.

Ferdinand was thrown straight in against Liverpool and, although he said "the sensible thing" would have been to introduce Van Nistelrooy gently back to football after his hernia operation, the Dutchman faced Bolton Wanderers from the off. From the moment Giggs was given the Manchester derby as his first taste of playing for United, Ferguson has not been one for mollycoddling talent and Rooney, who has not kicked a ball in anger for three months, has that in abundance.

"You see him do things in training that take your eye," Ferguson remarked yesterday, "and you know you're looking at something very good. But the football field is where the examination will be. You wouldn't think he'd be cowed by the Champions' League, looking at him."

Although Ferguson admits to being excited by Rooney in practice matches, he confessed that there was not an awful lot they had worked on at United's training complex at Carrington. "I don't see how coaching comes into it at this moment in time," he said. "He has a natural instinct for the game; he has a natural ability to play anywhere. He is two-footed, he's strong, he's good in the air, he can pass, he's got vision. You hope every young player will put that together and become a player. There is not an 18-year-old who has this potential. The challenge for a manager is to try to develop that potential and in three or four years' time you will see the full article. At which point you can then say, this boy has been a great investment."

When Fenerbahce last came to Old Trafford in October 1996 to inflict Manchester United's first ever home defeat in Europe, Ferguson had just proved you could, domestically, win everything with kids. Yesterday, he reckoned that in Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo he had probably the best two teenagers in European football. The difference between then and now is that "Fergie's Fledglings", Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Giggs and Paul Scholes, cost nothing. The bill for Rooney and Ronaldo is £40m.

For the first time this season, Ferguson has virtually all his big guns primed. Only Scholes missed training yesterday with a groin injury and when asked if Rooney, Van Nistelrooy, Alan Smith and Louis Saha were a better foursome than Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who shot their way to the European Cup five years ago, Ferguson required no prompting. "I am absolutely convinced of that. These are marvellous options. I hope I can use them the right way."

The midfield, however, is probably not in the class of 1999; Ronaldo has yet to have the impact of a David Beckham while Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson are not Roy Keane's natural successors. However, yesterday it was the back four that exercised Ferguson's mind. What he enjoyed about Saturday's victory over Tottenham was that United did not concede, a feat they have managed a mere three times in 11 games.

"The defending has got to be 100 per cent. If you are not losing goals and are really strong like we were on Saturday, and for the most part against Liverpool, then players like Ronaldo, Rooney and Van Nistelrooy, Scholes, Saha, Smith... they are going to give you a goal."

They should find them against the Turkish champions, despite their opening victory over Sparta Prague and the presence of such talents as Alex and Sanli Tuncay. Fenerbahce may have broken United's 40-year unbeaten record at Old Trafford, a defeat that prompted Cathy Ferguson to greet her returning husband with a chant that he should be sacked, but in the age of the Champions' League, United's run of three years without a home defeat is almost as formidable an achievement.

Manchester United: (probable: 4-4-2) Carroll; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo, Djemba-Djemba, Keane, Giggs; Rooney, Van Nistelrooy.

Fenerbahce: (probable: 4-2-3-1) Rustu; Fatih Akyel, Luciano, Deniz; Ozat, Marco Aurelio; Serhat Akin, Alex, Tuncay; Van Hooijdonk.

Referee: F De Bleeckere (Bel).

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