at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London – Manchester United’s £50million strikers Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have been piling on the overtime to ensure they live up to the hype of being the most exciting front pairing in the Premier League.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been putting his two superstars through their paces on the training ground, with particular emphasis put on the tactical side of their new partnership.
They are expected to start a Premier League game together for the first time at Newcastle on Sunday after linking well in United’s 2-1 Champions League win at Cluj on Tuesday, when Rooney set up both goals for his Dutch teammate.
And Van Persie, who has scored seven goals already this season, has also been voluntarily undertaking extra training sessions to improve his fitness after missing pre-season while his protracted £24million move from Arsenal to United was being finalised.
Despite their status in the game, Rooney and Van Persie are not being allowed to let natural talent alone build their on-pitch relationship.
Ferguson is excited by the possibilities of having two such versatile players, with each one capable of playing as the furthest man forward, or as a second striker.
“There is a tactical part to the kind of training we do, and Rooney and Van Persie have to include themselves in that, without doubt,” he said. “All the players get coached every day.
“We’ve had a lot of players who are naturally gifted in terms of movement and ability – Giggs, Scholes, Cantona , Ronaldo.
“But players and tactics can be manufactured as well. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that if you reach high levels through the coaching you give the players.”
Ferguson’s biggest headache is working out which way is best to use his strikers, given their talent and versatility, hinting that Van Persie is capable of supplying chances for Rooney, as well as vice-versa.
“Rooney and Van Persie can play up front together, it is possible to use them as a front two. But I think one of them would always drop in, which we don’t mind – we think that is usually the right thing to do.
“It’s not right to say Rooney prefers it facing the play. The season we played him up on his own, he scored 30-odd goals. We have great options up front because Danny Welbeck can also play up top or drop in.
“I think Van Persie and Rooney will score at least 20 goals each this season. If we can get Welbeck or Chicharito (Javier Hernandez) to 20 goals as well, that’s perfect. We’ll be in business.”
Ferguson is aware expectations are sky-high when arguably the two best individuals in the Premier League are in the same starting line-up. Should Van Persie and Rooney replicate their solo form as a duo, they have the potential to emulate the best strike pairings seen in the Premier League, like Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, and United’s own Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke.
Rooney’s leg injury earlier in the season meant they have not yet started a league game together, but Ferguson clearly feels his two star players are now ready for it, having both started the campaign sluggishly for different reasons.
“Rooney is fit, he has trained really well,” said the manager. “I think having time off because of his gashed leg has been key to it. He maintained his fitness during that time, which is important because he is a stocky lad.
“Once Rooney gets that first goal of the season, he will explode. His record shows that he will score goals, his finishing gets better every year. I know Van Persie was short of fitness and sharpness in his first games. He doesn’t carry weight but nonetheless you need four or five games pre-season. The other players had that but he only had 20 minutes for Arsenal against Cologne.
“His training sessions are getting better all the time. He’s doing a lot of work after training with the sports science people. He asked for it because he knows he needs to make up time. He’s been good that way in training, I think he is a good pro actually, looks after himself.”
Despite winning four Premier League titles and appearing in three Champions League finals since joining United in 2004, Rooney is still searching for that elusive perfect strike partner, for club and country.
He has scored goals alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy, Dimitar Berbatov, Welbeck and Hernandez for United, and Michael Owen and Emile Heskey with England, but nothing to compare with the Yorke-Cole partnership at Old Trafford.
United’s injury crisis in defence means Ferguson’s back four will pick itself at Newcastle, although he hopes Chris Smalling will be back to provide competition for Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans after the forthcoming international break.
But the manager faces a huge selection problem in midfield as he is desperate to find a place for Japan international Shinji Kagawa, who has impressed this season and was rested for the Cluj victory.
Michael Carrick, Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Nani, Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes are also vying for midfield places while Welbeck and Hernandez cannot be guaranteed a place on the bench.
“I think I know my team but it’s difficult,” admitted Ferguson.
The trip to the north-east is always considered one of the toughest by United aficionados who remember Philippe Albert’s chip in the 5-0 Newcastle win in 1997. United were also well beaten there last season.
Ferguson is expecting a tough contest again. “Newcastle rested five players in the Europa League against Bordeaux and did very well. Papiss Cisse’s goal was brilliant, a really good finish. Any time you go to Newcastle it’s tough with the support and all the 50,000 screaming Geordies.” – Daily Mail