MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, March 12 – Sir Alex Ferguson has challenged Wayne Rooney to break the 40-goal barrier after his double put Manchester United back on top of the Premier League with a 2-0 victory over West Brom.
Rooney took his tally for the season to 26 at Old Trafford on Sunday with a well-taken first half goal and a second half penalty, awarded for a push on Ashley Young by Keith Andrews.
That leaves the England striker — who has nine goals in his last six appearances — just eight short of his previous highest total for an entire campaign, recorded in the 2009-10 season.
But United manager Ferguson is hoping Rooney can reach 40 as United attempt to retain the English title — they lead Manchester City by one point — and also stay in the Europa League, the competition in which they must overturn a 3-2 first leg deficit at Athletic Bilbao on Thursday.
“As long as he gets to 40 I’ll be absolutely delighted because we are in business then. He’s on a hot streak – he does these things,” Ferguson said.
“The first goal was fantastic. I thought he was offside he was so far clear but the timing of the run was fantastic and a really good finish.”
Thanks to Rooney’s latest heroics, and the second half dismissal of Albion defender Jonas Olsson, United have finally overhauled bitter rivals City and sit top of the pile for the first time since October.
But Ferguson insisted he isn’t worried about the table now, only at the end of the season.
“I don’t mind being top but I don’t care about the positions just now,” he said.
“I’m happy to be there because only a few weeks ago we were seven points behind at one time, now we are one point ahead so we have turned around eight points.
“Credit to the players and the resilience of the squad because everyone knows we have had a lot of injuries.”
Rooney’s form also earned praise from Albion manager Roy Hodgson, one of the names being mentioned as being in contention for the vacant England post.
And should Hodgson be in charge of England at Euro 2012, he has little doubt about how much Rooney will be missed in the opening two group games from which he is suspended.
“He’s certainly playing well,” said Hodgson. “He always looks to be a player in form to me because he’s a world class footballer.
“His goal was a mark of that. He came from nowhere and it’s the type you don’t concede too often in the Premier League unless you are playing against a player of his calibre.
“We always appreciate the players we see on a week-to-week basis. Rooney is a world-class player and is going to be a major loss for England in the first two matches of the championship.”
Rooney himself clearly saw the significance of his team returning to first place and believes United have been unfairly criticised of late.
“This is where we want to be at the finish,” he said. “I don’t think we have had the credit we deserve these past few months.
“Europe has been disappointing, that’s fair enough, but we’ve played well against the big teams recently.
“We’ve not always been at our best but we’ve got the wins and we fully deserve to be top.”
Ferguson, conscious that his team now only need match City the rest of the way to win their 20th league title, seemed equally content at the position in which United find themselves.
“If we keep winning games, that’s the name of the game for both of us,” he said. “The games whittle away and you run out of time.”