Dimitar Berbatov and five other players will miss Manchester United’s trip to Aston Villa this weekend through injury as Sir Alex Ferguson faces a deepening absentee list at the club. The Bulgarian aggravated an existing ankle injury in United’s 2-1 Carling Cup defeat to Crystal Palace on Wednesday, but is not expected to miss more than a fortnight. Meanwhile, twins Rafael and Fabio da Silva, both injured against the Championship side, will miss United’s visit to a ground where the Reds have a positive overall record.
Indeed, last season’s 2-2 draw at Villa Park was only the third point Villa has picked up at home against United in the last decade. That draw, built on a vibrant, attacking, youthful Villa side, is a world away from the dysfunctional unit manager Mcleish has built in the Midlands.
Meanwhile, Ferguson must balance both a lengthening injury list, and preparation for United’s crucial away tie with FC Basel in the Champions League next week. The Scot, never afraid to tinker, is likely to rotate his resources for the double-header. However, with United facing a less-than-taxing fixture list in December, Ferguson will surely seek to re-establish some momentum lost since the derby defeat to Manchester City.
“Berbatov’s injury isn’t serious,” explained the manager.
“He got injured the week before and it’s just a recurrence. We’ve been getting a few injuries but it happens. At the moment, we’re going through a spell where we’re getting a few a week but we have to get on with it.
“Squad rotation is inevitable. December is a particularly busy month when we often play a lot of games. We’ve got a Boxing Day game, a New Year’s Eve game and it’s going to be a hectic spell and that’s when the squad really kicks in. Actually, I think we’ve been using the squad very well lately. Nobody can complain about a lack of games. Everybody’s been getting their share.
“We’ve got two months to galvanise the club now. New Year’s Day, I want to be in a position where we’re top, or within a point or two of the leaders.”
United faces not only Villa but QPR, Fulham, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers in one of the club’s least challenging Christmas programmes of recent years. But the set back against Palace, combined with injury disruption, means that Ferguson faces a challenge restoring confidence ahead of the weekend fixture.
With Danny Welbeck and Berbatov injured, Ferguson is likely to pair Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández in attack. Meanwhile, former Villan Ashley Young should start on the left, with Nani on the right. However, the question on most fans’ lips is what balance Ferguson will strike in central midfield, with Park Ji-Sung near abysmal in the role against Palace. In-form Michael Carrick is therefore likely to partner Darren Fletcher, with Tom Cleverley and Anderson injury until the New Year.
However, Ravel Morrison’s positive substitute appearance against Palace may have given his manager food-for-thought, and the 18-year-old could yet make the United bench. With a team made largely of reserves losing in mid-week, Ferguson will have genuine cause for concern about his resources over a busy month, even if on paper United should emerge with 18 points before the New Year.
However, the manager, who apologised to fans and those players not selected on Wednesday, absolved his younger charges of blame for the defeat.
“It is hard to come on when the team is not playing well around them,” added Ferguson.
“It was a difficult night for them but it won’t do them any harm. They started very well for 10 minutes but then we got a lot of possession and didn’t do anything with it. I don’t think their goalkeeper made a save in the first half. Maybe we were playing too much short passing. There wasn’t enough spread in the game. I am not going to dwell and go into the ins and outs of it all. At the end of the day it has been a very disappointing night for Manchester United.”
Meanwhile, Villa manager Mcleish has a delicate selection dilemma for United’s visit. Chris Herd and Fabian Delph were deployed in the draw with Swansea last weekend, but Stiliyan Petrov is available after overcoming a hamstring problem, and Jermaine Jenas is pushing for a first start of the season. Barry Bannan and Stephen Ireland could also feature for the Villans.
Villa hasn’t beaten United at Villa Park since the 3-1 victory in 1996; the win that spurned Alan Hansen’s now infamous missive that “you can’t win anything with kids.” It is a result that Mcleish believes Villa can repeat this weekend, despite the Midlanders’ poor recent form.
“Why can’t we beat them this weekend?” said the Villa manager.
“This is a brilliant challenge for the players. But they shouldn’t be putting Manchester United players on a pedestal. They have to realise these guys have two legs just like us. There will be a day when Villa beat Manchester United at home again – so why can’t it be this weekend?
“To win a game like this would do wonders for everybody’s confidence and would be a big fillip for the fans. We’re at Villa Park, we want clubs like Manchester United going back up on the bus saying ‘what a game they gave us there, that’s a hard place to go’ and that’s what we’ve got to instil into the mentality here.”
Despite United’s average form of late, with Ferguson’s outfit having failed to score more than one goal in a league game for two months, the Reds will start as favourites. After all, even if United isn’t producing the free-flowing football of the late summer, then at least Villa’s product is far worse.
Aston Villa versus Manchester United, Premier League, Villa Park, Saturday 3 December 2011, 5.30pm
Villa (4-3-3): Given; Hutton, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; N’Zogbia, Petrov, Herd; Agbonlahor, Bent, Heskey. Subs from: Guzan, Clark, Cuellar, Jenas, Albrighton, Bannan, Delph, Delfouneso, Weimann, Ireland.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Pogba, Evans, Fryers, Gibson, Park, Valencia, Diouf, Macheda.
- United was held to a 1-1 draw against Newcastle United last weekend. Hernandez scored United’s only goal – his sixth of the season. The Mexican has scored his six goals from 21 attempts, making a conversion rate of 29 per cent;
- United has now scored just once in each of the side’s Premier League games since a 2-0 win over Norwich on October 1st, a run stretching six matches. Hernandez has scored the solitary goal in four of those six games;
- Previously United had scored 24 goals in seven games at the start of the season, with the 6-1 defeat to City seemingly marking a change from free flowing attacking football to a more cautious approach;
- Young covered most ground in the game against Newcastle with exactly seven miles and has averaged 6.47 miles per game this season;
- Only Fletcher has covered more ground per game for United this season, with 6.6 miles;
- Meanwhile, Villa played out a 0-0 draw with Swansea City last weekend, but Brummies covered a lazy 58.14 miles compared to Swansea’s 64.1. That was Villa’s lowest cumulative team distance of the season;
- Villa missed midfielder Petrov in midfield, who has averaged an impressive 6.62 miles per game so far this season, and should be fit again for United’s visit;
- Stephen Warnock is now Villa’s highest ranked player in the EA Sports Performance Index in 40th place. The young defender has won 23 tackles so far this season, 82 per cent of those attempted, and made 23 interceptions.
Referee: Lee Probert
Assistant Referees: Stuart Burt, Scott Ledger
Fourth Official: Kevin Friend