United boss bids to keep star striker at the peak of his powers ahead of crunch derby showdown

Neil Johnston

ALEX FERGUSON is ready to gamble by starting Wayne Rooney against Cluj in the Champions League tonight ahead of this weekend's derby at Manchester City, a match the Manchester United manager admits he is already worried about because of his team's poor defensive form.

With United's passage into the last 16 in Europe confirmed, Ferguson plans to rest a number of influential players ahead of Sunday's top-of-the-table game at the Etihad Stadium.

He has also delayed the return of captain Nemanja Vidic tonight, claiming that the Serbian defender needs more time on the training pitch before he returns from three months out with a knee injury.

Yet Ferguson is refusing to give Rooney(right) a night off, insisting that the 27-year-old needs to play after his recent lay-off following a foot problem and a bout of tonsillitis.

With such a big game at the weekend, and the memories of last season's embarrassing 6-1 defeat to City still fresh in the memory, it represents a risk playing Rooney against the Romanian champions. But Ferguson believes United could reap the benefits when they look to pull six points clear of City at the top of the Premier League.

"When he is interrupted in a run of games it takes him several games to get back, and that's why he will definitely play against Cluj," said Ferguson.

"Wayne needs to be playing a lot of games to get his match fitness. He is a strongly built lad and when he misses games it takes him several games to come back."

United are through to the knockout stages in Europe's elite competition and three points clear at the top of the Premier League, yet their defensive failings are a cause of concern.

Despite securing maximum points at Reading last Saturday, the three they conceded in the seven-goal thriller at the Madejski Stadium means they have let in 32 in 22 matches in all competitions.

"It is a worry," said Ferguson. "If we perform like that on Sunday then God knows what's going to happen to us. We've lost 32 goals already – I can't remember us losing so many goals before Christmas.

"Saturday was like Cartoon Cavalcade and when you see City have Balotelli, Dzeko – really tall players – it's going to be a big challenge.

"It's a concern. But that's on Sunday. It's five days away but at this moment in time it feels like five months."

Ferguson's programme notes tonight indicate that he has one eye firmly on the weekend, the United manager predicting a "gung-ho" encounter at City.

"Roberto Mancini and I will both have to think deeply about our selection and tactics and there may well be an element of playing safe," he writes.

"But don't count on it because it's a derby match when anything can happen and often does. The passion of the fans can easily spill over so that tactics go out of the window as emotions take over and each side will both slide into gung-ho mood.

"An early goal can also dictate the shape of the game so as I say we could be in for a masterclass of attacking football from both teams – in which case, hold on to your hats and enjoy."

Meanwhile, Cluj can join United in the knockout stages if they avoid defeat at Old Trafford and Galatasaray lose away against Sporting Braga.

Having started their Champions League campaign at the third qualifying round stage on August 1, this is the Romanian side's 10th game in this season's competition but only the third under Paulo Sergio, who led Hearts to Scottish Cup success in May. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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