When Wayne Rooney limped towards the Old Trafford tunnel clutching his left thigh five weeks ago, eight minutes into the game against Wigan Athletic which was one of his side’s two games in hand over the other title contenders, it looked like his manager’s concerns about the prospect of injuries had been realised. Rooney will be back in the squad to face Fulham tonight in the second of the games United missed during their Super Cup and Club World Cup jaunts, but never has one of his periodic absences proved to be of such little significance. United have since put together seven consecutive wins in all competitions, progressing in the FA Cup and League Cup and moving from two points behind Liverpool to a position where a win tonight would open a five-point lead over what is now a chasing pack – and an out-of-breath one at that.
There have been no outstanding contributors to United’s nine successive wins and that record 13-match sequence without conceding, though Dimitar Berbatov’s three goals since Wigan were defeated have underlined the way he is finally easing into his new mantle and Nemanja Vidic’s calm authority has made him simply the Premier League’s finest defender in the campaign to date. United have pushed on simply because of their squad’s depth of talent, one or two of its number always capable of delivering for them: Ryan Giggs in their past two games; Berbatov with the late winner at Bolton; Carlos Tevez excelling at West Bromwich. As |Giggs put it: “Every player that comes in needs to take their chance. You are finding that lads coming in are fresh and we are playing some good stuff.”
Tevez is likely to get another chance tonight, with Berbatov also a good bet to return to a starting line-up considerably more familiar than the one which demolished Derby County in the FA Cup on Sunday. Rooney will be among the substitutes, Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed yesterday.
“The plan is for Wayne Rooney to be involved tomorrow night and he will start on the bench,” the United manager said. “We have handled him in the right way. He is training now and he is back to his best. The decision not to involve him on Sunday was a good one because he was able to train and that extra day has brought him on a lot.”
The most formidable aspect of United’s progress, from the perspective of an ageing Chelsea squad seemingly incapable of holding a torch to them, has been the development of young players. Who anticipated Jonny Evans and Rafael da Silva enjoying 33 games between them and United’s defence remaining impermeable? The striker Danny Welbeck’s appearances have been more fleeting but his scoring record of three in six games masks the amount of time he has been on the field of play. One goal every hour is the more precise assessment.
It is Ferguson’s obsession that no squad should age in such a way that many individuals must be replaced at once and he reflected on that point again this week when asked what he considered the turning point in his United career to have been. There was no mention from Ferguson of the fateful Mark Robins moment at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, in January 1990, but he did talk of the wholesale changes he made to the side the summer before. “I felt the first-team squad was too old to carry on challenging and we had to start changing that. In 1989, I brought in five players and we sold off about eight – Paul McGrath, Norman Whiteside, Gordon Strachan, Jesper Olsen, Peter Davenport.”
Youth development transcends all other objectives, Ferguson said. It was “the foundation we built at this club. We had meetings with the scouts to focus on what their job was. I remember saying to them, ‘I don’t want the best boy in their street. I want the best boy in their town’.”
Asked if he would take the Scotland job when he retires from United, Ferguson gave a flat ‘no’. “I won’t turn to international management. When I’ve finished here, I think I deserve a complete rest! After here, I’m finished!”
But United currently have a point fewer than they mustered in each of the last two league campaigns, from which they emerged triumphant. With the prospect of equalling Liverpool’s 18 league titles currently greater than ever and tonight’s opposition a side who have mustered only three goals and not a single win away in the league this season, Ferguson has no immediate plans to go anywhere.
Reading the runes: Reds without Rooney
14 January: P/Pts/GD
Manchester United 20/44/+23
17 Jan Bolton 0 Man Utd 1; Prem
20 Jan Man Utd 4 Derby 2; L Cup
24 Jan Man Utd 2 Spurs 1; FA Cup
27 Jan West Brom 0 Man Utd 5; Prem
31 Jan Man Utd 1 Everton 0; Prem
8 Feb West Ham 0 Man Utd 1; Prem
15 Feb Derby 1 Man Utd; FA Cup
Manchester United 24/56/+31
Aston Villa 25/51/+16Reuse content