Manchester United heads into the penultimate game of the year still carrying more than half-a-dozen injuries, but facing a Wigan Athletic side on the precipice. United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson received mixed injury news this week as the Reds aim for the Premier League summit against Roberto Martinez’ outfit, still glowing from the 5-0 victory over Fulham in midweek.
United faces a Wigan side still in the bottom three but in much improved form over the past month. Martinez’ side held Chelsea at home 10 days ago, and then Liverpool in midweek. Yet, absences notwithstanding, this is a fixture that United always wins, and with title rivals Manchester City facing a tricky fixture at West Bromwich Albion, United could top the league by Saturday evening.
Defender-cum-midfielder Phil Jones is likely to make the fixture despite coming off with a suspected fractured jaw against Fulham last week. The youngster will partner in-form Michael Carrick in central midfield once again.
But if United struck lucky with news that the 19-year-old’s injury was far less serious than initially diagnosed, the loss of Ashley Young to an ankle problem is another blow in a period when United has been hit hard by absences. Meanwhile, long-term victims Tom Cleverley, Anderson, and Michael Owen are unlikely to return until well into the new year.
Rio Ferdinand is again unlikely to feature, but Rafael da Silva could come into the side for his first game of the season.
“We have good news on Phil Jones: he should be okay for Monday,” confirmed Ferguson.
“He has some swelling in his jaw but there’s no break, no fracture, which is good news. We feared the worst because he lost his vision a bit in that period when he came back onto the field. Thankfully it’s good news.
“It’s not so good for Ashley Young. We’re still waiting on some of the bleeding to go away, which is quite extensive at the moment. It was a sore one so he’ll be out for a few weeks. Ashley was tripped as he went into the next tackle. He wasn’t positioned to go into that next tackle – he was half-falling at the time. The second tackle was a hard tackle – not a bad tackle – it was just the way he went into Ashley. He’s taken a real clump.”
“There’s not great news on the other ones – Michael, Tom and Ando are still on the sick list. But Rafael played in the Reserves last night, which will help him. As we get one back, we’re losing one. It’s not an easy spell for us but we just have to get on with it. The squad has handled the situation quite well. The form has been really good and I’m pleased with that. We’re scoring goals again, which is terrific.”
Despite the injuries this season Ferguson insists that he will not dip into the transfer market in the coming window. Blaming “blogs and Twitter” for the current concern about the state of United’s squad, the 69-year-old manager says that while money is available for transfers he does not believe his squad needs strengthening.
It is a contentious argument – one that supporters who witnessed last season’s humiliation against Barcelona, or indeed, the more recent calamitous defeat to FC Basel might contradict. In truth, few bar Ferguson believe that the manager’s state-of-mind is influenced by anybody but the club’s parsimonious owners. The word emanating from European clubs and agents is that United has no money to spend this winter.
“The criticism has been understandable,” added Ferguson.
“You lose a derby game 6-1, you’re knocked out of the Carling Cup and you lose to Basel, who aren’t a powerhouse. You can understand the criticism. But we show the resilience and determination to do something about it, each time it happens. That says a lot about the character of the team.
“All things being equal, I am perfectly happy with the strength of our squad in terms of depth, quality and age range,” Ferguson added in his programme notes for Monday’s game. “I will not be swayed by the endless tweets and blogs urging the club to get busy in the transfer market next month.
“As far as I am concerned I am marching perfectly in step, true to my beliefs and principles. While recruiting some of the world’s leading players can lift you into contention for honours, it doesn’t necessarily take you all the way, as I hope we will be able to demonstrate before the end of the season as other factors come into play.”
Ferguson’s stance will raise a few eyebrows, as will the Scot’s assertion that Carrick is now United’s pivotal player in a midfield that has struggled to dominate matches against superior opponents in recent seasons. But if United is to win a 20th domestic title in May then Ferguson is set to do so with his current squad, and victories over Wigan and others near the relegation zone are a must. United faces Wigan on Monday, followed by Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford on Ferguson’s birthday, New Year’s Eve.
“I watched Wigan versus Chelsea the other day and I thought Wigan were terrific,” added the Scot.
“It says a lot for Roberto Martinez – he continues to play good football irrespective of what position they’re in. We have a good record against Wigan but we won’t take anything for granted. We need to keep out foot on the pedal. I don’t think they’re a relegation team. They do well against the bigger teams. Last year, I think they lost heavily to Chelsea and, this season, they got a draw and could have won. I think Wigan will stay in the Premier League.”
Meanwhile, Wigan make the short trip to Old Trafford without Steve Gohouri, who has flu. Striker Hugo Rodallega faces a late fitness test – the Ecuadorian picked up an injury during Saturday’s draw with Chelsea and then featured, injured, against Liverpool.
For one United player the Latics’ visit is a special occasion. Antonio Valencia joined United a little over two years ago, and with Young set to remain on the sidelines for several weeks, is once again a key part of the Reds’ attack this season. The winger has found a renewed spell of form in recent matches after suffering a genuine confidence problem earlier in the season.
“They’ll always have a special place in my heart,” Antonio told United Review.
“I came here from abroad and I was taken in as one of the family from the first day. It was a real special group of players that we had in those few seasons there, and it was great to be a part of. I have only have gratitude and fond memories of my time there. I still speak regularly with Maynor Figueroa, who is a close friend of mine.
“I do look out for their scores. I know at the minute they’re by no means out of danger, but they’re working hard and they’ve picked up some decent results recently and let’s hope they can get up there and be fighting for ninth or tenth place.”
Few will expect that fight to begin against United on Boxing Day though. The Reds have won 13 of 13 encounters during the Premier League era. Indeed, goal difference and the opportunity to close the gap to title rivals City may well be on the agenda.
Manchester United versus Wigan Athletic, Premier League, Old Trafford, Monday 26 December 2011, 3pm.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Carrick, Nani; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fryers, Park, Pogba, Cole, Diouf, Giggs, Macheda, Berbatov.
Wigan (4-5-1): Al Habsi; Alcaraz, Caldwell, Stam, Figueroa; McCarthy, Gomez, Diame, Jones, Moses; Rodallega. Subs from: Watson, Sammon, Di Santo, Pollitt, Lopez, Crusat, Watson, McArthur.
- United hit five past Fulham in the last Premier League game, with the Reds out running Fulham by 64.75 miles to 64.53 miles;
- Michael Carrick has a tackles won rate of 96 per cent this season, and covered the most ground for the Reds with 6.56 miles against Fulham;
- Jonny Evans made six clearances in the game against Fulham, the highest of any player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index in the last round of games;
- Ryan Giggs was on target against Fulham, and continues his record of scoring in every Premier League season. Giggs has made just six shots at goal this season, but has contributed 174 passes in his opponent’s half, along with 10 dribbles and 10 crosses, leading to an impressive five assists. That’s an assist every 106 minutes, the second most frequent provider in the league;
- Meanwhile, Wigan gained a valuable point against Liverpool last week, with midfielder James McCarthy covering the most ground with 6.33 miles;
- Goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi was the Index’ busiest goalkeeper in the last round of games, making 11 saves.
Referee: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire)
Assistants: G Beswick, S Ledger
Fourth Official: A Taylor