Sir Alex Ferguson will let Wayne Rooney off the leash as Manchester United start their Champions League challenge at Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday.
Rooney has been sidelined since breaking a metatarsal bone in United’s first match of the season against Reading, but he is set to feature at the Jose Alvalade Stadium.
The England striker returned to training last week and was keen to play against Everton on Saturday, but Ferguson wasn’t prepared to risk him until he was fully fit.
With United strangely lacklustre in attack so far this season, Rooney’s return is perfectly timed.
The Premier League champions haven’t scored more than once in any of their seven matches this season. Successive 1-0 wins over Tottenham, Sunderland and Everton have been more notable for United’s lack of fluency than the results.
But having Rooney fit and desperate to make up for lost time should go a long way to solving the problem.
The last time Rooney broke a toe was before the 2006 World Cup. Just weeks after suffering the injury he announced his return to action by walking into the England team’s hotel and proclaiming ”the big man is back”. Unfortunately he was far from match fit and made little impact in the tournament.
This time Ferguson believes Rooney’s rehabilitation has been managed to ensure he come back with a bang. Rooney won’t be the only prodigal son returning to the fold on Wednesday.
United wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani left Sporting for Old Trafford, the former in 2003 and the latter this close-season, while Ferguson’s assistant Carlos Queiroz coached the club in the mid-1990s.
Ronaldo’s impact in England has been immense and he was United’s driving force as they won the Premier League title for the first time in four years last season.
Nani has already showed signs of emulating Ronaldo since his £15-million transfer.
He has played a decisive role in each of United’s last three wins.
His deflected long-range strike earned a 1-0 win over Tottenham, while his crosses were responsible for Louis Saha’s winner against Sunderland and Nemanja Vidic’s late goal at Everton on Saturday.
If Rooney, Ronaldo and Nani are to enjoy triumphant returns, United, beaten in the semifinals by AC Milan last season, will have to find a way to improve on their woeful Champions League away form.
Ferguson’s side, who are likely to be without the injured Owen Hargreaves again, have won only two of their last 14 away days in Europe’s top club competition.
Vidic knows United have to end that run if they are to have any hope of winning the Champions League 40 years after Sir Matt Busby first brought the European Cup to Old Trafford.
The Serbian defender is targeting a victory in Portugal as the perfect springboard for the rest of the group stage, which includes daunting assignments at Roma and Dynamo Kiev.
”It’s really important that we get off to a good start in the Champions League,” Vidic said. ”We know Sporting Lisbon will be difficult to play against.
”They are technically very good and they know how to keep possession of the ball, which makes it difficult. ”But we want to start the tournament well and get a good result.”
United are firm favourites to win the group, although Sporting harbour realistic ambitions of joining Ferguson’s side in the knockout stages.
Paulo Bento’s team went third in the league with a 2-0 win at Estrela Amadora on Sunday and United will have to beware of Brazilian striker Liedson, who was on target in that match, as well as midfield playmaker Joao Moutinho.
Sporting have never lost at home to an English opponent in five matches, although a repeat of the 5-0 thrashing they inflicted on United when they last met in 1964 would surely be beyond their wildest dreams. — Sapa-AFP