Louis van Gaal counting on Wayne Rooney for extra spark in season run-in
Louis van Gaal is counting on Wayne Rooney to give Manchester United an extra spark as the season comes to a close.
What had long looked like being another forgettable season in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era could yet end with a flourish.
A first FA Cup in 12 years remains within reach if they can navigate their way through Wednesday's quarter-final replay at West Ham, while securing a third-straight league victory on Sunday would bolster their chances of Champions League qualification.
Rooney will again be unavailable for this weekend's mouth-watering clash at Tottenham, but the United captain is edging closer to a return and will turn out for the under-21s against Middlesbrough on Monday.
The 30-year-old's return from a knee injury sustained nearly two months ago will be a timely boost and one which Van Gaal hopes can help the side end the campaign with a flourish.
"We are communicating every day with each other," the Dutchman said of Rooney. "He knows also my philosophy. Everybody knows that.
"We communicate every day with him and I communicate with the doctor, with the player and then we make a game plan.
"It's not hard because I do that with every player and Wayne is very open for me."
Asked if Rooney can provide an extra spark in the final weeks of the season, Van Gaal said: "I hope so! I hope so. I am counting on him.
"I have said that to him already, but you have to be fit in the first place. Secondly, I have to compare him with the players who have played."
The latter comments are similar to those repeated by Roy Hodgson when asked about Rooney's place ahead of Euro 2016.
You would expect the forward to slot back in for club and country given his track record and leadership qualities, especially if he can allay concerns over his fitness.
Van Gaal says Rooney's work-rate makes him the "easiest player for a manager" and his performances in his first two training sessions since returning from injury have impressed.
"I cannot say that (it will take time for him to reach top form) because when I saw him training yesterday, for example, he scored a goal," Van Gaal said.
"He made a fantastic chip over the goalkeeper. It was his first training session and then I said to him 'I have never seen that this season'.
"So I cannot say that because he can be so good that I shall be forced to give him a position in the team.
"But it depends on what we are seeing and today was another day. There's tomorrow also.
"Let's wait. He plays 60 minutes at a lower level and maybe he can play against West Ham United, you never know."
As Euro 2016 approaches it is not only Rooney's fitness that is being questioned but also his place in the England line-up.
How to shoehorn the abundance of attacking options into the side is a welcome selection headache for Hodgson and one that Van Gaal was not keen to get involved in.
The United boss believes that Rooney is "normally" England's best striker, but concedes the impressive form of the likes of Harry Kane has muddied the water somewhat.
Predictions that the Tottenham striker would drop off after his remarkable emergence have proved laughably wide of the mark this term, with his 22-goal haul making him the Premier League's top scorer.
Kane has been linked with a move to Old Trafford and Van Gaal is wary of the threat he poses on Sunday, not that he is taking the rest of Mauricio Pochettino's side lightly.
"Kane is of course a very good striker but he hasn't scored yet against us," he said with a smile. "I cannot remember that he scored.
"When I say that, then I am challenging him also, so it's not so smart of me to say that.
"But we are never defending one player. We defend like a team and we defend the attack of Tottenham Hotspur because we have analysed them.
"Of course Kane is very important but (Christian) Eriksen is also very important and Dele Alli is also very important.
"I can start with, for example, (Hugo) Lloris because he makes very quick set-plays and also (Toby) Alderweireld has a very good pass, so it's the team you have to solve and not only Harry Kane."