Injury-plagued midfielder Owen Hargreaves could return for Manchester United’s clash with Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford today. The 30-year-old has played less than 10 minutes this season, after missing three months with a hamstring strain suffered on his comeback in November. But the Canadian-born player could be drafted into United’s back-four as Sir Alex Ferguson’s has just four fit defenders for the clash with Owen Coyle’s Europe-chasing outfit.
Captain Nemanja Vidic joins Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva and John O’Shea on the sidelines for Saturday’s match. Northern Irish defender Jonny Evans could make the bench having missed nine games with an ankle injury, although the 23-year-old is unlikely to start given Bolton’s physical threat.
In total up to 10 United players will miss the game, with midfielder Anderson also out, reserve goalkeeper Anders Lingegaard having undergone a knee operation and Paul Scholes suspended. Meanwhile Darren Fletcher is suffering with a virus and Park Ji-Sung has only recently returned to training.
The injury crisis comes just prior to the international break, with Ferguson hopeful that key players will return over the next forthnight. However, the boss admited that Ferdinand could miss much of the run-in, with the 32-year-old still not training.
“Rio has plenty of years ahead of him,” said Ferguson, who will start the first of a five match FA-imposed touchline ban against the Trotters.
“He has had a few injuries over the last few years I am sure that are a concern for him. Calf injuries can be troublesome and we are not looking at this as a short-term situation for us. He has been out for a few weeks now anyway and has not started training yet. It looks to me as if we will be lucky to get him back for some point of the season. But he is still capable of coming back and playing at the top level again.
“Anderson is doing OK running-wise, he is getting closer. Owen Hargreaves has trained this week, which is good news. There are some promising things going to help us on the run-in.”
The lengthy injury list means that Wes Brown and Chris Smalling will probably continue in the centre of United’s defence, with Hargreaves or Fabio da Silva occupying the right-back slot. Ferguson also has limited options in midfield, although Nani and Antonio Valencia are both fit. Darron Gibson could make a rare start alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield.
Ferguson must also choose between top-goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov and in-form Javier Hernández to partner Wayne Rooney in attack. Although Ferguson says he will not continue to play the former Evertonian in midfield, Rooney is likely to continue in a deeper role that has prompted a return to better form in recent weeks.
“We only started playing Wayne deeper because of the injury situation before the game against Arsenal last Saturday,” added the 69-year-old Scot.
“We were forced into trying to organise a team that gave us a chance of going through. In that particular game it worked. But Bolton are a completely different team and I may change it.”
Coyle’s high-flying Bolton side is chasing a Europa League spot on two fronts, lying seventh in the Premier League and facing Stoke City in the FA CUp semi final at Wembley in three weeks. Bolton’s improved standing, allied with United’s injury list, means Coyle will hope to end a run of seven conscecutive defeats at Old Trafford. The Reds’ home record the season suggests otherwise of course, and Bolton has not won on the road since November.
“The way the lads have progressed this season has been enjoyable, accepting that there have been little dips or lulls along the way,” Coyle said.
“Every time we enter the field we feel that we have a chance of winning the game and we will certainly need that on Saturday, going to what I believe are the champions elect and a team that are truly outstanding on every front.
“We will be setting our lads out very positively as we look to achieve what would be a big result at Manchester United. It’s an opportunity to mix with the very best players in world football and show that they can play as well. We have done that all season and we will try to do it again in an unbelievable footballing arena on Saturday.”
However, the Bolton manager is without Mark Davis, Zat Knights, Ricardo Gardner, Sam Ricketts and Jay-Lloyd Samuel for the clash. Coyle welcomes back key defender Gretar Steinsson for the short trip across Lancashire.
However, United’s striker Rooney believes last weekend’s victory over Arsenal has given the Reds a confidence boost after consecutive Premier League defeats to Chelsea and Liverpoool.
“It was a difficult week with the Chelsea and Liverpool results and we knew that if we could beat Arsenal it would give us that edge to push for the title,” he told club rag United Review.
“You can’t wait for the games to come at this stage of the season and we’ve got another important one on Saturday. We have to make sure we get the job done.
“A lot has been said over the last few years about them being a long-ball team, but I think they mix it up well and like to pass the ball around. They’re a physical side who work hard as a unit and they’ve got themselves into a great position in the league. We know we’re in for a difficult game and we need to make sure we get in amongst them.”
With an inexperienced back-four and lightweight midfield it’s a challenge United could fail. It is perhaps only the Reds’ transformation at home that will take Ferguson’s side to three vital points.
Bolton – 451 – Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, Wheater, Robinson; Muamba, Holden, Petrov; Elmander, Davies, Sturridge. Subs from: Taylor, Klasnic, Lee, Lainton, Moreno, Blake, Cohen, Alonso, O’Halloran, Eaves.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Hargreaves, Brown, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Gibson, Giggs; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Fabio da Silva, Valencia, Owen, Berbatov, Bébé, Park, Obertan, Tunnicliffe, Morrison, King.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistant referees: Mike Cairns & Jake Collin
Fourth official: Eddie Ilderton
United – DWLLWW
Bolton – LWWDWW