Old Trafford welcomes Andre Villas-Boas’ Tottenham Hotspur this weekend, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men chasing a seventh win on the bounce. Victory over Liverpool at Anfield last weekend lifted Manchester United into the top four, although the Reds are far from hitting form this season despite a series of wins since the opening day. And with Villas-Boas promising that his side will attack, Spurs will again provide a stiff test to United’s early season title credentials.
While Spurs will offer a genuine challenge, Ferguson faces another week of mounting defensive injuries, with Nemanja Vidić set to miss two months of the season with a knee injury. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling remain on the sidelines. It leaves the 70-year-old Scot with only two fully fit first team defenders in Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans for Spurs’ visit.
Indeed, such are the paucity of options in defence that 21-year-old Scott Wootton will make United’s bench after impressing in the 2-1 victory over Newcastle United in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday night.
It is the third time in as many seasons that United has faced a serious defensive injury crisis, with questions now being asked not only of the Reds’ luck, but medical facilities and squad planning.
“We had bad news earlier in the week about Nemanja – it’s a blow,” admitted Ferguson at the Scot’s Friday press conference.
“We’re having a terrible time with defenders at the moment. Hopefully, we get through the next three games and the international break comes along. By that time, we should have Chris Smalling back.
“On Wednesday, we played two young boys and they did very well. Scott Wootton reads the game well, passes the ball well and, having seen him in a situation against very experienced players, he did very well. That’s a bonus for us and he’ll be involved in the game tomorrow.”
But it is not solely United’s defence that will concern Ferguson after Liverpool thoroughly dominated in midfield last weekend. The Reds’ manager is likely to recall Paul Scholes to the starting line-up as United seek to gain more control, especially with Spurs now sporting Moussa Dembele – the Belgian impressed for Fulham at Old Trafford earlier this season.
However, Ferguson is without Antonio Valencia who took a knock to his ankle in winning United a penalty at Anfield, although Wayne Rooney could make the starting line-up for the first time in a month. Nani, whose display at Anfield was described by one pundit as the ‘worst he had ever seen’, is likely to be retained if only because Ferguson has so few other options.
“Antonio Valencia is doubtful,” Ferguson added.
“He got a knock, first of all, when he went into the tackle with Agger and Johnson before he broke clear and got brought down. He got an ankle injury there. But, if he’s not okay for tomorrow, he should be okay for Tuesday.”
Lack of options in wide areas means that one of Shinji Kagawa, or more likely Rooney, will play wide against Spurs, with Robin van Persie again leading the line. The Dutchman has scored five goals in as many Premier League games this season since at £24 million transfer from Arsenal.
Better news surrounds Darren Fletcher who came through United’s cup tie with the Magpies on Wednesday. The Scot is unlikely to start against Spurs, although he could make the bench before appearing in United’s Champions League with with CFR Cluf in Romania next week.
Fletcher hadn’t started a first team match in 10 months before the outing against Newcastle, but impressed in a deep-lying role in front of the back-four.
“Darren’s in the squad for tomorrow,” confirmed Sir Alex.
“Obviously, having played on Wednesday night and contributed so well – also it was his first game of that magnitude for 10 months – I wouldn’t start him. But he may get a place on the bench and he could possibly go to Romania and play against Cluj. That could be an ideal opportunity for him. His enthusiasm on Wednesday night was fantastic. Darren sat in front of the two centre-backs and did a really good job.
“The great thing about Fletcher the other night was that his enthusiasm was fantastic. He played a great part in the victory and in a role different from how we’ve used him in the past. Darren was always the type to get about the midfield players but on Wednesday he sat in front of the two young centre-backs and did a really good job.”
Fletcher’s return will add further options in an area where United has struggled in recent seasons. Tom Cleverley and Anderson each scored in the Capital One Cup, although the Brazilian has started just two matches since January and has rarely retained fitness for any length of time. Cleverley has struggled to hold on to a first team place this season despite Scholes’ advancing years.
Meanwhile, the visitors arrive in rude health for the trip north. Villas-Boas rested most of his first team stars for the midweek League Cup victory over Carlisle.
Yet, mounting injury list aside – one that also includes Ashley Young – history is on United’s side, with Ferguson’s side having beaten Spurs on eight of the last 10 meetings between the teams. Few expect anything different on Saturday tea-time, despite the Londoners’ improved form of late.
Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 29 September 2012, 5.30pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Scholes, Carrick; Nani, Kagawa, Rooney; Van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Powell, Giggs, Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher, Macheda, Young, Hernández, Welbeck.
Spurs (4-5-1): Friedel; Walker, Dawson, Gallas, Vertonghen; Lennon, Sigurdsson, Dembele, Sandro, Bale; Defoe. Subs from: Lloris, Dempsey, Caulker, Huddlestone, Falque, Townsend, Mason
Referee: C Foy
Assistants: A Garratt, H Lennard
Fourth Official: M Clattenburg
Last 10: United 8, Spurs 2, Draw 0
Overall: United 84, Spurs 46, Draw 46
- Goals from Rafael and Robin van Persie were enough to help United beat Liverpool last weekend – the Dutchman’s goal places the striker at the top of the goalscoring charts with five goals in as many Premier League games;
- The former Arsenal striker has has scored five from just six shots on target – 50 per cent of the 12 attempts at goal so far this season;
- Michael Carrick’s 6.53 miles against Liverpool was the best individual distance covered by a United player so far this season, and the 62.05 miles covered as a team is also a season high for United;
- Meanwhile, Saturday’s visitors provided Villas-Boas with his first home win of the season when the north Londoners beat QPR 2-1 at White Hart Lane last weekend – a QPR own-goal and a Jermaine Defoe strike were enough to secure the points;
- Defoe is the Premier League’s most prolific shooter with 28 shots at goal already this season, with 16 on target, both of which are the highest in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Dembele has also enjoyed a good start to his career at Spurs, having won more tackles than any other attacking player in the Index with 13 won;
- Gareth Bale continues to rediscover his form and confidence – the Welshman’s 11 shots on target makes him the highest ranked midfielder in that category on the Index.