| 10.4°C Dublin

We're not a one man team

Wayne Rooney's presence is enough to give Manchester United a lift such is the aura that has been built up around the England striker.

Rooney took his goal tally for the season to 23 against Portsmouth, equalling his personal best.

Now, he aims to break new ground at Aston Villa tonight, and exert more pressure on Premier League title rivals Chelsea.

Former England skipper Alan Shearer is not on his own in believing Rooney has carried United for much of the current campaign.

Wes Brown does not agree with that statement. But he does acknowledge having Rooney alongside him brings an extra air of confidence.

"It gives you so much of a boost knowing he can always make something happen," said Brown.

"It definitely helps when you are playing in a game.

"Wayne is playing fantastically well at the moment. He is a pleasure to watch, not just for the fans but for the other players around him.

"We don't rely on him but he is a big influence for us. He is expected to do a lot and what he does has been magnificent."

A run of nine successive United away wins over Villa only ended with a goalless draw last season. It was 1995 -- when Alan Hansen famously delivered his "You'll never win anything with kids" judgement -- that Alex Ferguson's team last tasted a league defeat on one of their favourite grounds.

Rarely since then have Villa been quite so competitive as they are now though.

In fact, even Ferguson admitted Villa were the better side when they claimed maximum points at Old Trafford in December, the first time the midlands outfit had won that particular fixture in over 38 years.


But Brown feels United have gained momentum since then.

Even though Rio Ferdinand still has two matches of a four-game ban to serve now he has opted not to appeal against the additional match, Ferguson does have options.

Veterans Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are both tipped to be involved, while Nemanja Vidic has an outside chance of returning after a nerve problem ruled him out since the turn of the year.

"It is going to be a different Manchester United from now on," said Brown.

"For us now it is a question of being focussed all the way. We have been down this path so many times before. If we keep our focus and our form remains good, we have a decent chance."

Villa boss Martin O'Neill believes 'keeper Brad Friedel can continue his current stunning form for "an indefinite amount of time" ahead of tonight's game.

Friedel, 38, has kept eight clean sheets in the last 10 games to help Villa achieve the best defensive record in the top flight this season with just 18 goals conceded.

But that record will be put to the test by the Red Devils who have scored more goals than other side in the Premier League -- 61 -- during the current campaign, including 12 in the last three games.

O'Neill said: "Can Friedel play on into his 40s? I think when you are talking about players who are advanced in years, you can judge an awful lot by immediate form.

"But I am not saying for one minute he is not capable of doing that -- and I don't think for one minute he thinks he is incapable of doing it.

"It is harder to make those assessments but there is no reason why Brad can't continue this fine form for an indefinite length of time.


"If you look at David James, he must harbour strong ambitions of being the number one keeper to go to the World Cup and the two keepers are roughly the same age."

O'Neill also knows the threat that will be posed to Villa's fine defensive form -- and their chance of a first double over United for 55 years -- by Rooney.

O'Neill said: "Rooney is in fantastic form. He has been an exceptional player for some time but now is probably playing the best he has ever played. He has been a real top-quality player for the last four or five years and, after losing Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, he seems he has taken on even more responsibility.

"He is thriving on it, he is up to the challenge and he is just a terrific footballer."

Striker Emile Heskey looks like being ruled out against United with a groin injury suffered in the goalless draw at Tottenham although O'Neill does not expect the England player to be a long-term absentee.

And, even without Heskey, O'Neill will not be content for his side to adapt a cautious approach against United. He said: "We will be very dangerous on the counter-attack and United themselves have won championships based on counter-attacking football.