Former Liverpool manager Graeme Souness has backed Wayne Rooney to handle the occasion of today's trip to Anfield as the Manchester United forward plays his first game since receiving a three-match international suspension.
Rooney approached another trip to Merseyside in similar circumstances last Autumn – eventually being left out of Manchester United’s trip to Everton as Sir Alex Ferguson believed he needed protecting from a hostile Goodison crowd following lurid tabloid revelations about his private life. Souness, however, believes the striker will thrive on the animosity as he returns to his hometown this lunchtime
“He is a young man who is used to the big occasion,” Souness said. “Big players deal with the big occasions. He will receive extra attention from the Kop, for sure, but that’s football. He’ll expect it and he’ll deal with it.
Dwight Yorke, who had his own share of unwanted attention during his own time leading the Old Trafford frontline, echoed Souness’ comments. “Rooney has been in the spotlight for some time so is used to it,” the former striker said. “It is a difficult situation but he can deal with it.”
Rooney’s suspension for the group stage of Euro 2012 has led some to suggest he should be left out of Fabio Capello’s 23-man squad altogether for a tournament in which England's participation may be over before the forward is even available, but Yorke maintains Rooney is worth taking to the Poland and Ukraine finals. “The guy is arguably the best player in the England squad,” Yorke said. “You want your best player there giving his support around the squad, knowing you have a player of his status to bring back into the squad.”
Rooney’s sparkling form this season has been supplemented by the addition of Ashley Young, who has scored three goals in eight appearances since his summer arrival. The right-winger followed the route trodden 13 years earlier by Yorke, swapping Aston Villa for Old Trafford, and Yorke, scorer of 64 goals in 188 appearances for United, feels Young has taken his career onto a different level since his arrival. “The boy has talent, he has taken to being a United player like nobody else,” he said. “He has gone off to the best possible start. (United have given him) the best possible platform. He needed to take his game onto another level and United have given him that platform. He will get better and better as he goes on.”
Another new arrival at United, Phil Jones, has also impressed since moving to the champions and Yorke feels the ease with which he has dealt with his big-money move demonstrates the mentality of today’s leading youngsters. “That is just how younger players are when they come in full of confidence and believing in their abilities,” he said. “They come in ready to challenge the old boys. Phil Jones is another one who will go from strength to strength.”
Souness agreed with Yorke’s sentiments: “United are now at the stage where Liverpool were when I played for them,” the Scot said. “They have a team that can win trophies and they can pick up the best youngsters, introducing them slowly but surely. United look strong in every department. The only grey area (is) over David de Gea, he's the only question mark.”
De Gea has endured a mixed start to his Old Trafford career, displaying fine agility and shot-stopping while also struggling with the physicality of the English game. Several pundits have suggested Ferguson should rotate his goalkeepers, with Anders Lindegaard also impressing between the sticks, but Souness would stick with De Gea this afternoon. “How else is he going to get the experience?” the Scot said. “The Kop won’t be slow in picking up on a mistake but that’s football. Playing for a club like United, Arsenal, Chelsea, you are under pressure all the time, there are no easy games. Playing for Liverpool or United you deal with the big occasion.”
Liverpool have struggled to keep pace with the title setters in recent seasons – finishing seventh and sixth in the two years since they last finished in the top two, and had to sit back and watch as United overtook their record of 18 league titles last season. Souness believes his old side should look to re-establish themselves in the top four before casting their eyes on bigger prizes. “For the first time in a while Sir Alex sees them as a threat. Success for Liverpool would be top four this season, and then they can think about moving onto the next stage” the Scot, who won five league titles with the Anfield club, said. “At present Manchester United are head and shoulders ahead in terms of size and quality.”
Manchester United have lost their last three trips to Anfield and Souness believes the club face a challenge to turn recent form around today. “They will want to put that right,” he said. “It’s both club’s biggest test of the season.” Last season’s 3-1 victory featured a Dirk Kuyt hat-trick, but it was another forward who won the plaudits and who Souness feels could again trouble United today. “[Luis] Suarez is a top player,” he said. “He is in perpetual motion, never gives up till the ball is dead. My take – you’ve got the foreigners, top men who would grasp it right away wherever they went, and good players, who take time to settle. Suarez is one of the top men.”
“This is a big game for United to put a dent in Liverpool’s coffin,” Yorke continued. “Sure Liverpool are a threat at home but most teams are. The reality is that United has that little bit too much. They have gone to Anfield and turned them over in the past and I think they will today.”
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