Robin van Persie has been widely hailed as the crucial figure in this season's Premier League title race but André Villas-Boas believes Wayne Rooney is still "the player who makes Manchester United tick".
The Tottenham Hotspur manager said the pair were the best striking duo that he has encountered – and declared that it would take a special performance from his team to overcome them when Manchester United turn up at White Hart Lane on Sunday.
Rooney made his first appearance of the year when he started United's FA Cup replay victory against West Ham United on Wednesday, marking his comeback with a goal, a missed penalty and a performance that suggested he is ready to torment Tottenham again. Rooney had just recovered from another injury when Tottenham hurtled into a two-goal lead at Old Trafford in September but was introduced at half-time in that match and triggered a turn-around, though Tottenham ultimately clung on for a 3-2 triumph. Villas-Boas said he thinks Rooney's importance to United is understated.
"We're always very unlucky as he seems to return just in time for our games," said Villas-Boas. "We recognise that we had a fantastic first half in that game but he came on for the second and made a difference and created lots of problems for us. He had this game against West Ham to come back to form and so we'll just have to wait and see if he is selected or not but I think he's the player who makes Manchester United tick. Because of his movements and he always sacrifices himself for the team. And he has the team spirit, desire to win, and the focus. He has had some difficult moments in his career but always comeback. He is a top-quality footballer."
None of that is to diminish the value of Van Persie, whose class is such that Villas‑Boas reckons Rooney and the Dutchman are the most deadly attacking duo that he has come across. "It's a very, very strong partnership, the individual talent is absolutely amazing," said Villas-Boas, adding that it would take a well-coordinated effort from his team to stifle the pair. "You can't man-to-man mark, it is difficult against a team with as much mobility as United, so I think it is a group job."
Tottenham's top-four aspirations have been damaged by the absence of the Brazilian midfielder Sandro, who has been ruled out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament that he tore in last Saturday's draw at Queens Park Rangers. Villas-Boas said that the loss of Sandro does not require a venture into the transfer market but has blocked the proposed loan move of Jake Livermore to QPR to keep adequate midfield cover.
Sandro has been a key performer this season thanks to his ability to break up opponent's moves and instigate Tottenham attacks. His misfortune means the fit-again Scott Parker will make his first start of the season with Mousa Dembélé and Clint Dempsey completing a three-man central midfield. Villas-Boas believes United are in more formidable form than they were in September and Spurs need to take a more circumspect approach than the audacious attacking one that surprised United at Old Trafford.
"You have to be very organised and I'm not sure if an all-out attack posture is the one that will lead you to success against such a strong team," he said. "I think it will be a good reference this game, regarding what we want to achieve towards the future, if we want to challenge for trophies."