New year, same old goal: securing the Premier League title come May, starting with Manchester United’s visit to Wigan Athletic this weekend. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men play the first game of 2013, and the fourth of the festive period, at DW Stadium on Tuesday, seeking to consolidate a seven point lead over rivals Manchester City in the Premier League.
Victories over Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion, together with the draw at Swansea City, have earned Sir Alex Ferguson’s men some breathing room in this year’s title race, although few in the Scot’s side will assume the silverware is secure after last season’s experience. United’s loss at Wigan last April was a significant contributing factor in City’s erosion of the Reds’ eight point Premier League lead.
Ferguson, who turned 71 on Monday, is likely to be further rotate his resources at Wigan after a bruising period, which continues with United’s visit to Upton Park for the FA Cup third round tie next weekend.
The Scot has previously stated that none of his squad will play all four matches over Christmas, leaving Antonio Valencia, Patrice Evra and David de Gea vulnerable to rotation, while captain Nemanja Vidić is unlikely to be risked. The giant Serbian, who has suffered two serious knee injuries in the past year, is taking advice from his doctor over which matches he plays for the Reds.
Rio Ferdinand may return to the starting side alongside Jonny Evans, while Rafael da Silva and Phil Jones may both be available for the clash with relegation-threatened Wigan. Meanwhile, Ferguson could recall a quartet of players who dropped to the bench for United’s victory over West Brom on Saturday.
“Phil could be ready and Rafa will be ready,” confirmed Ferguson. “We rested Robin, Chicharito, Ryan and Paul against West Brom so we’ve got enough freshness to bring in. Wigan had a great result [winning 3-0 at Aston Villa] – it’ll be a hard game on Tuesday.
United’s strength-in-depth has been tested once again this season, with rounds of injuries in both defence and midfield depleting Ferguson’s resources for long stretches. Returning players should bring the Scot’s compliment to near full-strength for the short trip to Wigan, with perhaps only Nani missing from the match-day party.
“The strength of the squad is important,” said captain Vidić, who missed the second half of last season and three months of this campaign.
“The gaffer has always managed to do well with so many players. It has worked well for us, especially when you look at the injuries we have had over the last few years. We have had a lot of injuries in the past. We should look at doing something about that.”
Meanwhile, City host Stoke City at Eastlands, increasing the pressure on United to improve on last season’s result at Wigan; the 1-0 defeat was United’s first in 16 matches against the Latics. Roberto Mancini’s men secured victory over Norwich City last weekend, after the damaging loss at Sunderland, restricting United’s lead to seven points heading into the new year.
“It is good to have this advantage, but we have to be careful” adds Vidić.
“There is still a long way to go. We have the experience of last year when we were eight points in front and in the end it didn’t finish well. I think this season is different. We are more mature. That is a big help for the team.”
Ferguson can also look back on the clean sheet against West Brom with some satisfaction – it was just the fifth of the campaign in all competitions. The Reds muted attacking performance, especially in the second half against the Baggies, undoubtedly contributed to a greater sense of security at the back – a balance that United is yet to fully strike this season.
Still, with United significantly ahead of expectations coming into a traditionally strong period for Ferguson’s teams there is a growing sense of confidence at Old Trafford despite last season’s collapse.
“We know that if we go on a run of 10 or 12 games we’re going to have a great chance of winning something,” admits veteran winger Ryan Giggs.
“We know it’s a key time and we’ve got to start performing and there can be no mistakes. Usually when the stakes are high and the concentration is there, good players produce the goods. We were probably this many points ahead with less games to go last season so we’re only halfway there and there are a lot of tough games to come.”
Meanwhile, Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has no fresh injury concerns ahead of Tuesday’s match. Defender Ivan Ramis completed the victory over Aston Villa on Saturday after over-coming a hamstring injury, although Ben Watson, Albert Crusat, Ryo Miyaichi, Adrian Lopez are all out.
The Latics ended a six-game win-less run in the league with a 3-0 victory over Villa, keeping a clean sheet for just the third time this season. Yet, with just one victory at home since 27 October, Martinez’ side has once again been dragged into a relegation fight.
Yet, while United and Wigan lie at opposition ends of the league table each side has developed an uncomfortable habit of falling behind. Wigan has conceded the opening goal in 13 league games this season, losing a dozen. Meanwhile, United’s ability to recover has secured eight victories from behind this season.
“If we stop giving away goals then we’ve got a great chance this season because we’ve got plenty of goals up front,” concluded Ferguson.
“The fans are enjoying it and in terms of a worldwide audience they’ll be turning their TVs on, whether they’re in America or Australia, to see another 4-3. I think you just get immune to it all as a manager. You only enjoy the high-scoring games when you come back to win them.”
Despite that Ferguson will gleefully settle for another low scoring victory on Tuesday. With a clean sheet, of course.
Wigan Athletic v Manchester United – Premier League, DW Stadium – Tuesday 1 January 2013, 3pm
Wigan (3-4-3): Al Habsi; Caldwell, Boyce, Ramis; Beausejour, McCarthy, Jones, Figueroa; Kone, Di Santo, Maloney. Subs from: Pollitt, Stam, Golobart, Gomez, McArthur, McManaman, Boselli, Orsula, Morris, Fyvie, Redmond, Mustoe
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Büttner; Carrick, Scholes; Young, van Persie, Giggs; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Evra, Smalling, Vidić, Cleverley, Kagawa, Valencia, Welbeck, Powell, Macheda
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: M McDonough, R West
Fourth official: N Swarbrick
Head to Head
Last 10: Wigan 1, United 9, Draw 0
Overall: Wigan 1, United 15, Draw 0