LONDON, April 8 – Sir Alex Ferguson faces a striking dilemma as Manchester United seek to turn the screw in the Premier League title race against Fulham on Saturday without the banned Wayne Rooney.
Rooney’s superb hat-trick against West Ham last week and the winning goal in the midweek Champions League victory over Chelsea provided hard evidence that the England striker is rediscovering his best form after a protracted slump.
But frustratingly for Ferguson, United will be deprived of Rooney’s services against the Cottagers this weekend following the 25-year-old’s expletive-laden tirade at Upton Park which led to a two-match ban.
The suspension — which also rules Rooney out of next week’s FA Cup semi-final clash with Manchester City — means Ferguson will have to juggle his resources once more.
Ferguson could pair Javier Hernandez with Dimitar Berbatov in attack or ask either player to play the lone striker role. Alternatively, fit-again Michael Owen is waiting in the wings.
But whatever permutation he chooses, Ferguson will be buoyed by the fact that United have not found goals hard to come by this season.
Berbatov and Hernandez, along with the suspended Rooney, have all hit double figures, and could conceivably finish with more than 20 goals apiece.
"I said at the start of the season if we can get two strikers who can score 20 goals we’re in with a chance of winning something," Ferguson said.
"I think what’s kept us going is that there’s been a decent goal threat from us. We have forwards who can win matches."
The fact that United are still fighting on three fronts — League, FA Cup and Champions League — has fuelled heady talk of a possible repeat of the club’s historic 1999 treble.
However Ferguson insisted he was misquoted in an interview with an Italian newspaper this week where he said the club were targeting a repeat of their annus mirabilis 11 years ago.
"I said we’re in every competition and we’ve got to do our best," Ferguson said. "It doesn’t matter if you can’t win a thing. When you go out on that field you have to win the game — that’s the attitude of Manchester United."
A victory for United would give them a 10-point lead over Arsenal, who visit Blackpool on Sunday on the back of a catastrophic sequence of results which has all but extinguished their hopes of ending a six-year trophy drought.
Arsenal’s last victory in the league came way back on February 23 against Stoke. Since then the Gunners have lost a League Cup final and been dumped out of the Champions League and FA Cup.
Three consecutive league draws means that the fate of the title is out of their hands, and another slip up against Blackpool could prove terminal.
With third-placed Manchester City travelling to Anfield to face Liverpool on Monday, all eyes will be on Chelsea and Tottenham on Saturday, who will seek to banish their midweek Euro disappointments in the race for fourth place.
Spurs saw their Champions League campaign all but extinguished in a 4-0 first leg quarter-final defeat against Real Madrid, while Chelsea crashed 1-0 at home to United at Stamford Bridge.
Spurs have an awkward home tie against Stoke, knowing that only a victory will do as they attempt to keep pace with fourth-placed Chelsea, who are a healthy five points clear of their London rivals.
Chelsea meanwhile face Wigan at Stamford Bridge, with manager Carlo Ancelotti insisting his team will not be distracted by next Tuesday’s looking return fixture with Manchester United at Old Trafford.
"Our focus is to play against Wigan and to win, to take confidence and three points in the table, then we don’t have a problem physically," Ancelotti said. "We’ll have time to focus for the game at Old Trafford."
Saturday (1500 GMT unless stated):
Blackburn v Birmingham, Bolton v West Ham, Chelsea v Wigan, Man Utd v Fulham, Sunderland v West Brom, Tottenham v Stoke, Wolves v Everton (1245)
Blackpool v Arsenal (1330), Aston Villa v Newcastle (1600)
Liverpool v Man City (2000)