Sir Alex Ferguson will need every one of his 25-man squad in the coming weeks, with up to a dozen players missing for this weekend’s fixture with Bolton Wanderers. Indeed, the 69-year-old Scot will dig deep into Manchester United’s resources after John O’Shea and Rafael da Silva were forced out of the Reds’ victory over Marseille at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. Worse news came Thursday morning, with confirmation that influential defender Rio Ferdinand could miss the rest of United’s season.
The defensive problems mean that Ferguson has just four fit defenders for Wanderers’ visit to Old Trafford on Saturday, with Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans also struggling to make the Lancashire derby. The injuries threaten to seriously derail United’s progress at home and abroad in the coming week.
Indeed, United’s victory over Marseille in the Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday night came despite a rash of defensive changes. The back-four of Patrice Evra, Chris Smalling, Wes Brown and Fabio da Silva that completed the tie will almost certainly start at the weekend.
“It was nervy because so many players came off with injuries,” said Ferguson of Tuesday’s tie.
“It shifted the balance of the team. I would have rather brought on Darron Gibson because the problem was always going to be [Marseille’s] height and it caused us problems.
“In defence it was maybe a lack of understanding between the players. We have changed the back four many times and without the experience of Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand you are going to be under pressure at times with the young players we have.”
It’s a challenge United will now face with trepidation. While Smalling’s progress has been remarkable this season, his form has noticeably dipped when the reassuring presence of Ferdinand or Vidic is absent. Understandable, of course, given the 20-year-old’s lack of top-flight experience.
But the former Fulham defender, alongside Brown, who has been ostracised for long stretches of the current season, will be required for the Bolton game at a minimum. The international break will provide some relief but there is no guarantee United’s problems will ease over the next fortnight. Ferguson can only hope that the packed international fixture list does not bring further bad news.
“Rio has been out for a few weeks now,” added Ferguson today.
“We are not looking at this as a short-term situation. He has not started training yet. We will be lucky to get him back for some part of the season.
“Vidic won’t make it. He is showing good recovery for this week and should be OK after the international break but not enough for Saturday.
“It has been a bad spell for us. Only a few weeks ago we had every defender fit and things were looking great. It has all just fallen apart in the last week or so. Hopefully Jonny Evans may be fit for Saturday, even if it is a bit of a risk. He has trained all week but he has been out for such a long time.”
But risks are what Ferguson must now take, whether including Evans or not. And the problems, while highlighted in the back-four, are all over the pitch with a dozen players probably missing for Saturday. Paul Scholes will miss the next two matches through suspension, while Park Ji-Sung, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves, Darren Fletcher and Michael Owen will not feature until April at the earliest.
Reports today that Ferguson has finally lost patience with Owen will come as no surprise. The former Liverpool striker will almost certainly be allowed to leave the club this summer when he is out of contract.
Even reserve goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard could miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, which was operated on this week.
Then, if only to add to Ferguson’s problems, neither Nani nor Antonio Valencia are fully fit, while Ryan Giggs has only recently returned from a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Injuries of course are simply part of the game and United’s resources, although thinner than at many times over the past decade, are still ample. Indeed, Ferguson can draft in youngsters from the reserves and academy at almost any time. Joshua King, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ravel Morrison have each made brief appearances in the United first team – or bench – this season.
Not that Ferguson will be overseeing any of United’s next five domestic fixtures, having accepted – reportedly with great reluctance – the FA’s draconian five match touchline ban for criticising referee Martin Atkinson. The Yorkshire-born official sent off United’s captain Vidic, handed Chelsea a penalty, and failed to dismiss David Luiz – effectively winning the Londoners a key fixture. As he normally does, some might add, especially given that it was the second time in as many seasons that Atkinson has materially affected United’s result at Stamford Bridge.
That, Ferguson says, is now “in the past”. Unfortunately, United’s injury concerns are not.