BLACKBURN: Sir Alex Ferguson believes a more mature Wayne Rooney is key for Manchester United as the champions look to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League against Blackburn on Monday.
An intense title battle with Manchester City looks to have swung United's way after their local rivals were held to a 3-3 draw by Sunderland at Eastlands on Saturday.
United have a two-point lead at the top and can take what may prove a decisive five-point advantage if they win at Ewood Park.
The home meeting with struggling Rovers on New Year's Eve saw Blackburn record a stunning 3-2 victory over a United side from which Rooney was missing, having been dropped for breaking a club curfew over the holiday period.
But, whatever the England striker's disagreement with Ferguson at that point, his form in 2012 has been little short of stunning and 17 goals in as many appearances – coupled with improved discipline on the field – suggest Rooney will be a pivotal figure if the Reds are to hold onto their crown.
“He's doing well. He's scored 17 out of 17. I hope he gets to 40,” said Ferguson of Rooney, who has a total of 29 goals to date this season.
“Eight games left, averaging a goal a game, you'd take that wouldn't you? There could be games when he might get two.
“He could even pip (Arsenal's) Robin van Persie to Player of the Year but can only do that if he keeps scoring right up to the end.
“You always say there's a maturity 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. Everyone matures. We're all different in our mid-20s compared to our teenage days.”
Ferguson will come face to face with fellow Scotsman Steve Kean at Ewood on Monday and has paid tribute to the job carried out by the Blackburn manager in the face of long-term criticism, and even protests against him, from Rovers supporters.
“You know how things can change? Because you dig in and don't let them get to you,” said Ferguson.
“Now no-one talks about those fans having protests, marches and all the rest of it.
“He's held his dignity very, very well and he deserves absolute 100 per cent praise from everyone, including his own supporters who, I'm sure, a lot of them will be saying to themselves, 'I wish I hadn't done that'.
“Because he's certainly shown his mettle in those times when it was difficult for him.”
Meanwhile, Morten Gamst Pedersen has revealed Blackburn are not frightened of facing in-form United as Rovers look to pull off a double over the Premier League title chasers.
“We are facing a team who are doing well at the moment,” the Rovers winger said. “They caught up loads of points on City so the machine is starting to go for United. It is going to be a very tough game.
“If you are going to be frightened you have lost before the game has started. It is always going to be a tough game.
“You have to face it that it is going to be Man United. But you cannot be scared.
“You are the underdogs, you just relax. We know it is going to be tough, of course, but that's the funny thing in football, you never know.”