Club Focus – Manchester United – Supporting cast step into lead role

It has been five wins on the bounce since Manchester United let slip that two goal lead to West Bromwich Albion after the Red Devils took a confident victory from Turkish champions Bursaspor and all-but-ensured a place in the last 16 of the Champions League last night.

The victories chalked up against Bursa (twice), Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur have hardly been vintage Red, but with the dust settled on the Wayne Rooney debacle, it has been an important period of the season to be stringing together results and gathering momentum.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the recent revival is that United have had to utilise virtually every component of their squad, and that was the case once again for the trip to north-west Turkey. The nucleus of a strong spine was missing in the form of Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Gary Neville, Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, yet these absences offered further opportunity for the peripheral players to get match minutes and form in what was the first of four games in 11 days.

It has been Javier Hernandez’s goals which have received most plaudits, but so too there have been positive signs through the reincarnation of Park Ji Sung and Michael Carrick. Rafael appears to have added a solidity to his attacking bravado, Chris Smalling has impressed when called upon, and Nani is continuing his evolution into a generally complete offensive midfielder. Greater tests lie in wait, but until they come, Sir Alex Ferguson has had a good window to shape the season.

However, despite the culmination of these gradual positives, undoubtedly how United’s season ultimately fares will be dependent on the performances of their key personnel, namely Rooney. In an interview with official club magazine Inside United, Ferguson spoke of his belief that once Rooney returns from an ankle knock, he will be a different proposition to the one that laboured through the early weeks of the campaign, nursing injury and conscience concerns.

The England striker has featured just once as a substitute in United’s last seven games and has a solitary penalty in his Reds account all season. But Ferguson believes Rooney will come back refreshed and refocused upon his return: “I think that this has been preying on his mind. The important thing is for us to put it behind us and move on. But certainly something has been troubling him.

Certainly Rooney’s lack of form and goals are a contributing factor to United lying five points behind pacesetters Chelsea, although the optimistic view must now be that the Reds have been through the inevitable ‘blip’ and with Rooney back into the fray, and hopefully prepared to make up for lost time, the trials and tribulations which have punctuated United’s season so far will act as the catalyst to push on through the business stages.

With injury problems clearing, levels of performance high amongst the squad and the talisman on the way back, the vultures around Old Trafford may need to circle elsewhere to find a feed.

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