Wayne Rooney will make his first Old Trafford start in more than a month as Manchester United chase first place in the Premier League. The striker, who Thursday made a half-hearted apology to United supporters, is yet to score a goal in open play this season. Elsewhere manager Sir Alex Ferguson faces midfield selection problems .
Ferguson is without Darren Fletcher, who has a sore ankle, and Paul Scholes, absent with a tweaked a groin muscle sustained in midweek, for Blackburn Rovers’ visit where victory could catapult United to the Premier League summit. United remains second only on goal difference, with Chelsea set to play on Sunday.
The race for the league title now begins in earnest, with the Rooney saga now all but over. Indeed, Rooney could be key in securing United leadership before the New Year with Chelsea faltering in recent weeks.
“He needs games,” said Ferguson of Rooney.
“The way we are going to do that is to keep him on the pitch for 90 minutes. That will continue now as we try to get him to his level. He is rusty, that is obvious, but it is a start for him.
“Playing is the name of the game for him now.”
The absentees in midfield could mean a start for Anderson, who has been rarely used this season due to poor form, fitness and a recent illness. The Brazilian overcame knee-ligament damage sustained in February but suffered with the ‘flu virus that swept the United camp over the past fortnight.
Ferguson must also choose whether to keep faith with Dimitar Berbatov, who has now failed to score in more than 13 hours, stretching across 10 matches, since the Bulgarian scored a hat-trick against Liverpool in September. Berbatov sat out last weekend’s victory over Wigan Athletic but returned – to mixed reviews – against Rangers in the Champions League on Wednesday. Six-goal Javier Hernández waits in the wings
Elsewhere United can welcome back first choice central defensive pairing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic after Ferguson rested the duo for the visit to Scotland,, with Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling dropping to the bench.
Ryan Giggs may also find himself benched after completing the full 90 minutes at Ibrox on Wednesday night.
The focus remains on Rooney though after the 25-year-old scored the match-winning penalty against Rangers. Ferguson praised Rooney’s “courage” in stroking home the 87th minute spot-kick and is likely to offer the former Evertonian another 90 minutes against Blackburn.
However, Rooney’s apology to United fans on Thursday has not received universal acceptance, coming 22 days after the striker signed a lavish £180,000 per week contract with the club. Rooney claimed to have already apologised – which he had not – before offering a somewhat half-hearted statement.
“I feel like I have apologised to the fans, but everyone keeps saying that I haven’t and, if that is the case, then I apologise for my side of things.
“I have made my point clear since I signed my contract that I am committed to this club for the long term and I want to be successful with this club. I spoke with the manager and [the chief executive] David Gill and they reassured me the club was moving forward and, from that point, it took only two or three hours to negotiate my contract and sign it.
“Everyone is saying that I was definitely going to Man City. Believe me, if I had gone it wouldn’t have been in England.”
However, the striker’s statement contradicts the widely held view that Rooney was prepared to accept a £260,000 per week offer from cross-town neighbours Manchester City before bowing to media and supporter pressuring and inking a new deal at Old Trafford.
Meanwhile, Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce is missing several key players for the short trip to Old Trafford. Keith Andrews, Vince Grella, Benjani, Steven Nzonzi, Martin Olsson and Brett Emerton all miss the match through injury, while Mame Diouf is ineligible to play against his parent club.
Blackburn has not beaten United since the 4-3 victory at Ewood Park in February 2006 – a run of nine matches. United, with Rooney seeking a first goal in open play this season, has little intention of letting that
run end today.
Blackburn – 451 – Robinson; Samba, Givet, Nelsen, Salgado; Dunn, Pedersen, Goulon, Hoilett, Diouf; Roberts. Subs from: Chimbonda, Jones, Bunn, Hanley, Morris, Kalinic, Hanley, Doran.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Carrick, Park – Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Amos, Fabio da Silva, Evans, Smalling, O’Shea, Brown, Gibson, Obertan, Bébé, Giggs, Hernández, Macheda.
Referee: Lee Probert
Assistant referees: Patrick Keane & Trevor Massey
Fourth official: Chris Foy
United – WDDWWW
Blackburn – WLWWLL