ON an afternoon when Manchester City's title hopes suffered a devastating blow, Alex Ferguson threw down an extraordinary challenge to his star turn Wayne Rooney to go and win the title for United by scoring in all their remaining games.
Ferguson used to have a bet with Cristiano Ronaldo at the start of the season about how many goals he would score, a little bit of private provocation, extra motivation. Now he has put it up to Rooney to find the net in United's last eight games beginning at Blackburn tomorrow night. The prize? For the club, the title; for Rooney, the player-of-the-year award.
The Manchester United manager's almost whimsical ambition for Rooney is in stark contrast to Roberto Mancini, who openly revealed his frustration at not having a fully fit Carlos Tevez available after City came from 3-1 down to snatch a late draw with two goals from Mario Balotelli and another from Aleksandar Kolarov.
Mancini said he was considering replacing Balotelli after five minutes and added that he was "100 per cent sure" City would have won if Sergio Agüero had been fit.
"In a game like this the strikers should be the difference," Mancini said, "but not in the last two minutes, in the minutes before. A player like Mario or (Edin) Dzeko should score two or three goals in a game like this. In this moment we need Carlos (Tevez), a striker who can do different. I want this."
So brilliant has Robin van Persie been for Arsenal this season that the only way Ferguson can see Rooney beating him to the individual award is if his phenomenal scoring run continues until the last game. "He can only do that if he keeps scoring right up to the end," Ferguson said. "Van Persie has had an exceptional season. I don't know how you pick it. Wayne's doing well.
"He's scored 17 out of 17. I hope he gets to 40. Eight games left, average [just over] a goal a game -- you'd take that wouldn't you? There could be games when he might get two."
Rooney has 31 goals this season -- two for England -- and, on form, he is on course to surpass his United best, the 34 he scored two years ago. His run of scoring since early December has been the most important factor in keeping United in the title race. It is a run he will seek to extend against Blackburn tomorrow night.
But Mancini thinks Rovers might give his ailing title challenge a boost.
"I think on Monday United will probably do a draw and we are always three points behind. It is hard but we have another seven games. We have done some mistakes in the last games but also United can arrive in a difficult moment. It is important we are there. Before the derby it is important we recover two points."
That Rooney would be in contention for the player-of-the-year award, and United for the title, seemed an unlikely prospect the last time they faced Blackburn, on New Year's Eve.
Not only did they lose at Old Trafford to Steve Kean's struggling team but they did so without Rooney, who was dropped as punishment for breaking a club curfew. In the past that might have been an issue that disrupted his form but this time he took it in his stride.
"Everyone matures," Ferguson said. "We're all different in our mid-20s compared to our teenage days. It's what you always say about players when they get to their mid-20s: there's an ability and authority and timing comes into their play. They are able to control themselves and experience helps."
Slips at this stage are expensive, pragmatically and psychologically, especially as it looks like it is going to need a points total close to the Premier League record to ensure a title win -- United are already on 73 with 24 still available.
"It was pointed out to me that we've won the league with 75 points before. And when we won the Treble it was 79 points. I said some months ago the league would be won with 82 points. It doesn't look that way now," said Ferguson.
Should United win all their remaining games, they would break the record, getting two more than the 95 Jose Mourinho's Chelsea earned in 2004-05.
"I think points will be dropped by both teams," Ferguson added. "You just hope you don't drop as many as your opponents. There could be a shock around the corner.
"We've done particularly well over the last few weeks to get to the position we are and it's a matter of keeping our nerve and keeping playing our game. We let ourselves down in the last 15 minutes the other night [against Fulham] as we kept giving the ball away.
"I'm not anxious. But if you're in a football job all your life there is anxiety but not to the point you get desperate about it. In 1992 we had four games in six days and you can see leads evaporate in seconds. We drew at Luton Town, lost at home to Nottingham Forest and lost on Wednesday to West Ham and Sunday to Liverpool. Vanished!
"We had some injuries but the pitch was terrible. The Old Trafford pitch was a nightmare. I tried to sign Mick Harford [from Luton] before the deadline . . . If we had signed him we would have won the league."
The idea of a club like United wanting a player such as Harford to help decide the title belongs to a different world.
These days they rely on Rooney -- if he delivers, it is hard to see how United can be stopped.
Sunday Indo Sport