Maturity is a word that Sir Alex Ferguson has used with increasing regularity when discussing his team this season. Following a far from convincing start Ferguson has seen his team slowly knit together to form a cohesive unit who have rattled off six league wins and a draw since Fulham upset them at Craven Cottage before Christmas.
Players like Jonny Evans, Rafael de Silva, Antonio Valencia and Nani have developed and are starting to established themselves as key figures as Ferguson builds yet another side, this time in the wake of the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. But leading the pack is the prodigious Wayne Rooney who has matured to such an extent that he was considered as a possible candidate to replace John Terry as England captain.
"Hopefully we are now seeing him mature into the centre-forward we always thought he would be," said Ferguson, who has seen Rio Ferdinand drop his appeal against the extra one-match ban he was given by the English Football Association for a "frivolous" appeal against the initial decision to ban him for three games following a clash with Hull's Craig Fagan. With seven goals in his last four games, Rooney is in peak form going into tonight's game against Aston Villa - a dress rehearsal for the Carling Cup final later this month.
"We've got to keep the momentum going," stressed Ferguson. "So we've got a big few weeks coming up where consistency and form is going to be very important." The form and consistency of Nani, the Portuguese winger, has been a huge plus for Ferguson. His last five starts in all competitions have resulted in five wins and 21 goals. "Everyone knows the talent he has got and sometimes the fans get frustrated because they know what he can do," said Patrice Evra, the left-back. "He just needed time. I don't say well done to him every game, I just tell him it's normal and he needs to keep doing that."
Villa Park will be the stage for him to do that tonight and it could take something special from Nani or Rooney to prise open a defence that has become the meanest in the league with just 18 goals conceded. Four successive league clean sheets have put Martin O'Neill's side back in contention for fourth place but they could be without Emile Heskey tonight. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Aston Villa v Manchester United, 11.45pm, Showsports 3