Wayne Rooney starts for Manchester United at Stamford Bridge tonight after escaping FA censure this week. The 25-year-old appeared to strike Wigan Athletic midfielder James McCarthey with his elbow in Saturday’s 4-0 win for United but the FA could not act under its own rules.
The former Everton player will either start the game on the left-side of midfield or as the lone front-runner behind top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov as United seek a 15 point lead over Chelsea and seven ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League title race.
Elsewhere manager Sir Alex Ferguson is still missing Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans through injury, while Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs face late tests before their fitness is determined.
Rooney’s inclusion means there is unlikely to be a starting spot for Mexican forward Javier Hernandez, despite the 22-year-old’s two well-taken goals at the DW on Saturday. But the former Chivas player understands that he is part of a squad at Old Trafford – albeit now a key piece having scored 14 goals this season.
“I have no problems being on the bench. I understand that football is a team sport, not like golf or tennis,” said the £10 million summer signing.
“So you have to help your team when you play from the beginning but also when you come on from the bench. We are like pieces of a jigsaw and the boss decides how to use us. If Ferguson picks me for the starting line-up, that would be great but if not, that’s fine too.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson could rotate his midfield, with Paul Scholes, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson and Michael Carrick all in contention to start against last season’s champions. Scholes played against Wigan on Saturday but sat out the draw with Marseille last week, with Irishman Gibson handed a rare start for the club.
Ferdinand’s continued absence means another start for Chris Smalling, who impressed both at Wigan and in United’s Champions League tie with Marseille last week.
Although Giggs is unlikely to start for United – if he makes the matchday squad at all – the winger will mark almost 20 years since his United début. And the winger remains determined to add more silverware to a growing collection, starting with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge tonight.
“They don’t come any bigger than Chelsea away,” said the 37-year-old, who made his début against Everton on 2 March 1991.
“Last year when Chelsea won the Double, it wound me up. It’s not the fear of failure. It’s craving that feeling of winning.
“Losing the title by one point last year stayed with me. I went away on holiday, I am lying on the beach enjoying myself with the kids, and then what happened comes back. It really winds you up. You are on holiday and you are really wound up.”
Meanwhile, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti says both Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba will feature against United tonight, although the Italian was coy about whether both will start the game. Torres is yet to score after the £50 million transfer from Liverpool but has seemingly displaced Drogba from the Chelsea team. Indeed, the Ivorian has threatened to leave the club if he cannot force his way back into the side.
If Torres is the long-term future of Chelsea’s strikeforce then it has brought little short-term success, with Chelsea’s form in free-fall since the autumn. The Londoners five-point lead in the Premier League has become a 12 point deficit, which has all but ended Ancelotti’s hopes of repeating last season’s league and cup double. FA Cup defeat by Everton means that the Champions League is Chelsea’s only realistic hope of silverware this season.
Still, United has not won at Stamford Bridge in eight years and twice suffered defeat to Chelsea last season. It’s a fact Ferguson will be mindful of, with a lone-striker system likely as United seek to avoid defeat first.
If Giggs has not recovered for the trip Rooney is likely to reprise the role he adopted in Marseille last week. Whatever his position, Ferguson will hope the £30 million striker capitalises on this week’s good fortune by scoring the goals that take United closer to a record 19th title.
“I have to say it’s been a difficult season for me – probably the worst I’ve ever had,” Rooney told the News of the World.
“That week when I asked for a transfer was something I wouldn’t want to go through ever again. Then I picked up a few niggles and missed a few games, so I didn’t really feel like I was playing a part.
“The good thing is that I feel fresh. I really want to kick on from here and have a big impact on the most important matches of the season.
“We’ve got a really terrible record at Stamford Bridge – in fact, I don’t think I have ever won there in my entire career.
“But it won’t play on our minds. If anything, it will make us even more determined to go there and win. It’s a really massive game and Chelsea need to win it more than we do. Hopefully the pressure will tell on them.”
Should the Scouser score United’s winning goal tonight, much will be forgiven.
Chelsea – 433 – Cech; Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard; Anelka, Torres, Malouda. Subs from: Turnbull, Mikel, Ferreira, McEachran, Sala, Kalou, Drogba.
United – 451 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Carrick, Rooney; Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Brown, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, Obertan, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King, Carrick, Rafael da Silva, Giggs, Owen.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistant referees: Peter Kirkup & Mike Mullarkey
Fourth official: Chris Foy
Chelsea – LDDWDL
United – WLWWDW