Martin O'Neill believes Wayne Rooney is in the best form of his career as he looks to his frugal Aston Villa defence to shut out the Manchester United star in tonight's clash at Villa Park.
Rooney has netted 21 times in the Barclays Premier League — his best tally for a season — and United have scored 61 goals to make them the division's leading scorers.
But Villa have the best defensive record in the top flight — just 18 goals conceded in 24 games — and shut out the Red Devils in a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in December.
O'Neill said: “It is Manchester United in town and at the moment they are playing particularly strongly.
“Rooney is in fantastic form. He has been an exceptional player for some time. He is probably playing the best he has ever played at the moment, scoring goals as well, which gives you a big boost of confidence.
“He has been a real top quality player for the last four or five years.
“Has he stepped up after the loss of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo? It seems he has taken on even more responsibility and he is thriving on it.
“Yet last season, when United wanted to play him wide right or wide left to help maybe stop the opposition from playing, Rooney was the first one to volunteer.
“Now he (Sir Alex Ferguson) has got him playing basically as a centre-forward, either with Berbatov or on his own. He is up to the challenge and he is just a terrific footballer.”
O'Neill has been delighted with the form of Richard Dunne, James Collins, Carlos Cuellar, Luke Young and Stephen Warnock in Villa's defence.
He said: “It will be hard to keep Manchester United at bay but we are going to try our very, very best and we are doing pretty well defensively.
“This time last year, when we were without Martin Laursen, we would have been conceding a lot more goals.
“But I think the three lads coming in the last few days before the transfer dead-line in August (Collins, Dunne and Warnock) has given us a great boost.”
Not that O'Neill will be content for his side to adapt a cautious approach against United.
He added: “We will be very dangerous on the counter-attack and United themselves won championships based on counter-attacking football.
“There was nothing wrong with that when they had the players to do so.
“It is not a case of us hanging around our own penalty area waiting for some things to happen on the break. We might be forced back in the game but I also think we are capable of taking the game to Manchester United.”
Meanwhile, it is no longer about wanting to win for Manchester United. Wes Brown knows they have reached the stage where victory is now a must.
United head to Villa Park looking to avenge their first home defeat to the Midlands outfit since 1981.
More importantly, they need three points to keep pace with, or even overtake, Chelsea, depending on how the Premier League leaders fare at the same time against Everton at Goodison Park.
“Once we get to this stage of the season it is no longer about wanting to win,” said the England star. “We have to win. We have to play well and we have to score goals.
“Recent results mean we have a lot of confidence at the moment. Hopefully we can keep it that way.”
With the exception of Arsenal, who were put to the sword in merciless fashion nine days ago, and Birmingham — who drew 1-1 at St Andrew's last month — United's recent opponents have all been from the wrong end of the table. But it was not a Premier League game which gave United their current momentum.
Brown points to the explosive Carling Cup semi-final with Manchester City as the point when United really clicked into gear.
“Those two games were brilliant,” he said. “Coming off after the second leg knowing we had beaten them and earned a place at Wembley gave everyone a massive lift.”
“If you are playing very well and against top quality teams, I would be really surprised if Fabio Capello, even if he won’t be there in person, wouldn’t analyse these games.”
Martin O’Neill on Aston Villa’s World Cup hopefuls.
“If he wanted to leave, that was up to him. Where he went to was obviously a bit of a surprise.”
Martin was a little bit taken aback when Gareth Barry decided to leave Villa for Manchester City for last summer.
“The goals gave us confidence and the tempo was good, but in the second-half we over-indulged, started playing fancy flicks and our centre-half started trying back-heels which might please the fans, but I'm not sure about the manager.”
Martin isn’t one for the fancy stuff.
“One of my jobs at the start — and you can write this as a headline — was trying to find out why exactly we had spent some of our money on Rafael Sheidt.”
Martin on Celtic flop Rafael.
“I like players who are not like you. I like footballers who play well.”
What he reportedly said to everyone’s favourite Brazilian Sheidt.
“When the final whistle blows and you're in front; that's the only moment you really enjoy it.”
O’Neill on the dubious joys of taking part in Old Firm games.
“The game was on a knife-edge right until the final whistle — certainly until Thompson scored.”
A nervous O’Neill after a Celtic win over Rangers.