Rooney to make United benchmark
When Wayne Rooney limped towards the Old Trafford tunnel clutching his left thigh five weeks ago, eight minutes into the game against Wigan Athletic which was one of his side's two games in hand over the other title contenders, it looked like his manager's concerns about the prospect of injuries had been realised.
Rooney will be back in the squad to face Fulham tonight in the second of the games United missed during their Super Cup and Club World Cup jaunts but never has one of his periodic absences proved to be of such little significance.
United have since put together seven consecutive wins in all competitions, progressing in both cups and moving from two points behind Liverpool to a position where a win tonight would open a five point lead from what is now a chasing pack - and an out-of-breath one at that.
There have been no outstanding contributors to United's nine successive wins and that record 13-match sequence without conceding..
United have pushed on simply because of their squad's depth of talent, one or two of its number always capable of delivering for them: Ryan Giggs in their past two games, Berbatov with the late winner at Bolton, Carlos Tevez was excellent at West Brom.
As Giggs put it: "Every player that comes in needs to take their chance. You are finding that lads coming in are fresh and we are playing some good stuff."
Tevez is likely to get another chance tonight, with Berbatov also a good bet to return to a starting line-up considerably more familiar than the one which demolished Derby County in the FA Cup on Sunday. Rooney will be among the substitutes Ferguson confirmed yesterday.
"The plan is for Wayne Rooney to be involved tomorrow night and he will start on the bench," the United manager said.
"We have handled him in the right way. He is training now. His performances have been excellent and he is back to his best. The decision not to involve him on Sunday was a good one because he was able to train and that extra day has brought him on a lot."
The most formidable aspect of United's progress this season, from the perspective of an ageing Chelsea squad seemingly incapable of holding a torch to them, has been the development of young players.
Who anticipated Jonny Evans and Rafael da Silva enjoying 33 games between them and United's defence still remains impermeable?
It is Sir Alex Ferguson's obsession that no squad should age in such a way that many individuals must be replaced at once and he reflected on that point again this week when asked what he considered the turning point in his United career to have been.
“I felt the first team squad was too old to carry on challenging and we had to start changing that,” he said.
“In 1989, I brought in five players and we sold off about eight - Paul McGrath, Norman Whiteside, Gordon Strachan, Jesper Olsen, Peter Davenport.
Youth development transcends all other objectives, Ferguson said, his analysis throwing Chelsea and Liverpool into contrast.
It was, Ferguson said, “the foundation we built at this club. We held trials every week up at Albert Park in Salford on the floodlit Astroturf.
“We had meetings with the scouts to focus on exactly what their job was. I remember saying to them, ‘I don't want the best boy in their street. I want the best boy in their town.”
Youth development involves a global scouting network these days - Rafael and his twin Fabio were bought from Fluminese for £1.2m, rising to a possible £7m - but the principle still stands.
United currently have a point less than they mustered in each of the last two league campaigns, from which they emerged triumphant.
With the prospect of equalling Liverpool's 18 league titles currently greater than ever and tonight's opposition a side who have mustered only three goals and not a single win away in the league this season, Ferguson has no immediate plans to go anywhere.