By Sonia Oxley
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - The first Manchester derby of the post-Alex Ferguson era takes place with the former United manager's influence keenly felt after he timed his praise for striker Wayne Rooney to coincide with the build-up to Sunday's game.
Ferguson was critical of the England striker's form last season and the Scot's disclosure in May that Rooney wanted to leave Old Trafford was reported to have fuelled the 27-year-old's desire to seek a new challenge elsewhere.
However, in comments published on Friday that are being interpreted by the British media as the extension of an olive branch, he waxed lyrical about his former charge's performance in Tuesday's 4-2 Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen.
That he has chosen to make his first public comments about a player whose future was one of the main talking points of recent months so close to a key game bears all the hallmarks of the managerial days when his mind games were well documented.
As new boss David Moyes prepares to take the Premier League champions to the Etihad stadium to play last season's runners- up, Ferguson's comments have ensured the headlines have come from the directors' box and not the dugout.
"Wayne's performance was fantastic, I was pleased to see that," the 71-year-old Ferguson, who retired at the end of last season having led United to their 20th league title, told the club's in-house TV station.
"He's got his energy back - the determination, his purpose to attack players, was all very encouraging to me.
"Being a director, I'm delighted to see that. He's back to what we always remember him as."
Rooney scored two goals and created another in a superb performance in Europe and having also netted a free kick in last weekend's 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace in the league, the 27-year-old is heading into the derby on a high.
"It's great to have him in that form - he can be untouchable when he's like that," team mate Michael Carrick told the club's website (www.manutd.com)
"We won at the weekend, and on Tuesday we took it to another level and improved again. Hopefully, we can do it again on Sunday. The performance will breed confidence, and we'll have to do it all again on Sunday."
The goals against Leverkusen brought Rooney's tally at the club to 200 in 406 appearances, leaving him fourth on United's all-time leading scorers' list behind Bobby Charlton (249), Denis Law (237) and Jack Rowley (211).
Restored to his preferred striker's role after being sometimes deployed by Ferguson in midfield, Rooney adds another attacking threat to that of Robin van Persie, who was top scorer in the Premier League last season with 26 goals.
"We will have a fantastic chance (of success) because in Van Persie and Rooney, you have forwards who can win you games," said Ferguson.
Even though Ferguson's comments could easily sound like a manager giving his pre-match briefing, it is Moyes who will need to concoct a plan to beat City, who received their own boost from their European exploits in a 3-0 win at Viktoria Plzen.
Manuel Pellegrini's side may have a good recent record against United, having picked up 10 points to their rivals' seven in the last three seasons, but their figures against Moyes himself are less encouraging.
In the past four seasons, City beat Moyes's Everton just once in eight meetings, with the Scot leading his former team to six wins.
"It was always tough for us to beat Everton when David Moyes was there," City defender Pablo Zabaleta was quoted as saying in Britain's Daily Express newspaper.
"It's a special game, one in which everyone wants to play and one the fans want to watch and to celebrate. It won't be any different - even without Fergie they are still Manchester United."
(Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by Ed Osmond)