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Aug 15, 2014

Rooney hunting records in new era

Louis van Gaal and Wayne Rooney have hit it off from the start -- and the new Manchester United manager will need his captain to help see him through a testing time with injuries.

"Nine players injured, but I am not nervous. We have beaten everyone so far."

It's a good thing Manchester United possess a manager with iron-clad confidence in his ability to tackle the task of restoring this fallen giant to former glories, because it's fair to say some fans are getting twitchy.

As Louis van Gaal prepares to stride out at Old Trafford for the first competitive match of his tenure against Swansea on Saturday, he does so amid something approaching an injury crisis. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Just two senior centre-backs are ready to play for Van Gaal's United, following a summer of departures and a lack of transfer activity; Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are the ones still standing where others have fallen.

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Indeed, Jonny Evans, Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia, Danny Welbeck and Robin van Persie will not feature when the curtain goes up at the Theatre of Dreams on Saturday, which means academy defenders Reece James and Tyler Blackett will get their chance. Van Gaal is a staunch believer in youth, but he will opt for one, or even both, of the players for the game more through necessity than choice, with an all-too-familiar injury list disrupting his plans.

Van Gaal saw United's dwindling defending options unfold earlier in the summer and has since failed to persuade Arsenal to sell Thomas Vermaelen (who has now joined Barcelona) to another Premier League club.

The transfer window closes in 17 days, but can fans really expect tumbleweed to be replaced by transfers in the remaining moments of the market? The club are testing collective patience, particularly when executive vice chairman Ed Woodward urged fans to "watch this space" on July 20. The only "space" at present are the gaps in a squad not ready to mount a title challenge as the season begins.

After the wretched 2013-14 campaign ended in a 1-1 draw at Southampton, the men in white coats would have been summoned for anyone who offered the following as a likely XI for the new campaign: De Gea; Smalling, Jones, Blackett; Young, Fletcher, Herrera, Juan Mata, James; Rooney, Hernandez.

Yet that is what United are looking at and Swansea have to contend with. It's not ideal, but at least the opportunity for supporters to see Lancashire lads James and Blackett get their chance provides a warming subtext to the start of a new chapter in United's history.

Admittedly, it can get rather sugary when managers, fans and writers talk about club philosophies or "The United Way" but the 20-time champions of England should be applauded for their faith in youth. This is a club who have gone on a scarcely believable run of including an academy product in every single matchday squad for 75 years -- a run over 3,600 consecutive matches.

Van Gaal will be hoping the kids are alright in a fixture dripping with familiarity. This time last year, United trounced Swansea 4-1 on the opening day of the season, a match at which Wayne Rooney was introduced to cheers from travelling Reds at a time when he was supposedly itching to leave the club.

Fast forward a year and Rooney is now captain -- and just 34 goals away from becoming Manchester United's all-time leading scorer, surpassing the venerable Sir Bobby Charlton.

Rooney achieved exactly that number in the 2009-10 season, and as United and Van Gaal prepare for their journey into the unknown, a chance for history beckons.

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