Manchester United’s players return from the international break today with a full complement greeting manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Minor training knocks to Wayne Rooney and Jonny Evans pending, Ferguson will have a full squad available to him for the visit of Bolton Wanderers this weekend. It’s the first time this season that the Old Trafford chief can call upon the full weight of his resources.
Ferguson himself enjoyed a short break to the United States, leaving Mike Phelan in charge of first team members without international commitments and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Warren Joyce looking after a crucial reserve team fixture for some returning players.
Indeed, United’s 3-0 Manchester Senior Cup win against Oldham Athletic on Monday enabled both Rafael da Silva and Gabriel Obertan to have their first run-outs of the season. Each played 45 minutes and came through without reaction.
Obertan, who signed for around £3 million in the summer, suffered a long-term spinal injury that has delayed his introduction to the first team. But Ferguson added the former Bordeaux winger to his Champions League squad in the expectation that the signing would return to fitness. The Frenchman showed some neat touches and bags of pace in United’s comfortable reserve team victory. In theory he will be available for the weekend match against Bolton, although a first team début is more likely in United’s Carling Cup fixture away at Barnsley next week.
Rafael’s return also adds to Ferguson’s options, with the Brazilian full-back offering an alternative to John O’Shea on the right side of defence. The teenager, who played 28 times for the club last season, is yet to feature this term after an operation on a dislocated shoulder. Ironically, this is the exact injury that his brother Fabio suffered last season.
“Rafa’s worked really hard to get his fitness levels back. He’s an enthusiastic, bubbly character and I thought his fitness levels looked good tonight,” Joyce told MUTV.
“Obertan, some of the quality touches and his movement were excellent, and his fitness levels looked really good as well.
“He was inventive, he received it well and his movement off the ball was good as well, so he can be very pleased.”
Meanwhile, Owen Hargreaves, who did not play in the reserve team fixture, continued his rehabilitation efforts at Carrington this week. The England international returned to Manchester on 23 September but is not expected to feature in the first team before November.
United’s internationals had mixed fortunes during the break, although few actually played two games. While Rooney missed out on England’s 3-0 win over Belarus on Wednesday night, Rio Ferdinand and Ben Foster both went some way to regaining credibility. Foster, who is likely to lose his United place to fit-again Edwin van der Sar, was surprisingly picked by Fabio Capello for England’s final World Cup group match. Meanwhile, Ferdinand, who had been heavily criticised by the media after his performance in England’s defeat to Ukraine last Saturday, marshalled his country’s defence to a clean sheet.
In Marijampole, Nemanja Vidic and Zoran Tosic were on the end of a 2-1 beating by Lithuania but with Serbia already qualified the defeat hurt only the United players’ pride. Despite being relegated to United’s reserve team for nearly a year now, Tosic scored the Serb’s goal with a stunning first half strike.
Nani fared better, scoring for Portugal in the Iberian’s easy 4-0 victory over Malta. The win, while expected, sealed Portugal’s place in the European play-offs.
In Ireland’s group John O’Shea played only as a first-half substitute during the Republic’s bore draw with Montenegro. Already consigned to the play-offs, Ireland will need to do better if United’s incumbent right-back is to feature in South Africa next year. The Republic, not seeded for the play-offs, is likely to face a leading team in the play-offs.
Dimitar Berbatov, in the same group, scored a hat-trick as Bulgaria bowed out of the campaign with a thumping 6-2 win over Georgia. It will be little comfort to the United striker who is now unlikely to appear in another World Cup.
There was also disappointment in Santiago as Antonio Valencia’s Ecuador went down 1-0 to qualifiers Chile. While the United winger did not play, the defeat ended the Ecuadorian’s hopes of making the World Cup, with Argentina taking fourth spot and Uruguay facing a play-off.
Given the long trip Valencia may not start United’s weekend fixture with Bolton, but Ferguson his hopeful that both Evans and Rooney will be available for the match. It’s a headache but for the first time in more than a year, Ferguson will have more than 30 professionals to choose from. Victory against Bolton at Old Trafford, following a draw against Sunderland last time out, is essential to regaining some momentum in the Premier League.