Sir Alex Ferguson is rarely one to dwell on past defeats, even if Thursday’s hammering at Athletic Bilbao’s hands was particularly galling. In 10 European ties this campaign, Ferguson’s Manchester United side rarely rose above the mundane. It is no surprise, then, that the Scot chose, Friday, to move on from Europa League elimination, focusing instead on the positive as his side chases the Premier League title.
With little time to dwell on what has been a disastrous European campaign, the Reds will move four points clear of near neighbours Manchester City with a win over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux on Sunday. That potential gap, a barely credible concept just weeks ago, is reward for United’s “resilience” in the title race, says 70-year-old Ferguson. Indeed, if anything can drive away the indolence demonstrated in Bilbao, then a title to pursue surely must be it, with pressure mounting on Roberto Mancini’s outfit as the race comes into its final straight.
With City not hosting Chelsea until Wednesday, Ferguson praised his squad’s determination and experience in hunting Mancini’s side down this season – a level of character certainly not demonstrated in Spain on Thursday, where far too many senior pros simply did not care about the result.
“The players have performed, they’ve gone out there and shown a great resilience and a great determination because they know they’ve got a chance of winning this league,” Ferguson told MUTV this week.
“They know they’ve got a great chance. It’s marvellous, it’s a testimony to the players’ resilience. We’ve got to take one game at a time. It’s the best way. If you look too far ahead, you can get yourself confused. Thinking too far ahead can be a danger.
“The mental attitude of the players who’ve been there and done it all before is take it one game at a time and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. That’s the part they play – the Ferdinands, Evras, Giggs, Scholes and the Rooneys. They’re the ones who will guide the younger players. They bring that sense of ‘It’s not affecting me, it shouldn’t affect you.’ I think it helps, I really do.”
Despite European failure, United face Wolves in the Midlands on the back of seven wins in the past eight Premier League games – a run that included fixtures against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. The series has come amid one of the worst injury crisis in Ferguson’s 25 years as United manager, with up to 11 players out of action at any one time.
Recent prognosis has been more healthy, although long-term injured Darren Fletcher, Nemanja Vidić and Anderson are unlikely to play any part during the run-in, while Michael Owen is some week’s from full fitness.
“It’s unusual to have so many injuries. As we all know, we’ve had more injuries than is normal for any team, in any situation,” added Ferguson.
“I thought everyone was fine. Jones was back, Smalling was coming back… and then Smalling got a head injury, Jones went down with flu, Anderson picked up a hamstring problem and Nani injured his ankle. Just when you think you’ve got them all back, something else happens. But this hasn’t derailed the team. They’ve been brilliant.”
With little more than two days preparation, Ferguson’s squad will have completed only light training following its return from Bilbao. And the Scot may be without a phalanx of players in the Midlands, with Nani suffering from an ankle problem – not a bruised shin as Ferguson reported last week – Anderson pulling a hamstring, and Phil Jones absent with flu.
United’s medical staff will conduct late tests on Rio Ferdinand, who applied ice to a sore calf after being substituted in Spain. Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney could miss out with a knock picked up at San Mames on Thursday night.
The United striker says the club’s away form – the best in the Premier League by some distance – will play a crucial role in securing title number 20 if United is to do so come May. Last season the Reds beat Chelsea to the Premier League based, largely, on dropping only two points at Old Trafford.
“It’s a massive game for us, particularly given that Manchester City don’t play until Wednesday,” Rooney told ManUtd.com.
“We have a chance to go four points clear at the top of the table and we have to get the win. We’ve had tough games there in the last couple of seasons and we need to be at our best to win. Wolves are fighting for their lives after going through a bit of a sticky patch and seeing Mick McCarthy leave. I’m sure it’s been hard for Wolves to lift themselves, but from our point of view when you go to the home of a team fighting to survive it’s always very difficult. So we know we need to play well to win.
“Last season was a nightmare really in terms of our away form. We knew we had to put that right and there’s been a real determination about us away from home this season. That’s definitely helped us get us results and win games. We’re pleased with that and hopefully it will continue between now and the end of the season. If we keep getting the results we want away from home we’ll have a great chance of winning the title.”
Meanwhile, Wolves manager Terry Connor has concerns over Nenad Milijas and Jamie O’Hara, while captain Karl Henry definitely is out with a hamstring injury. The potentially missing trio adds to the turmoil at Molineux, with the bizarre sacking of Mick McCarty being compounded by a long-winded and ultimately fruitless search for a new manager. Heavy defeats to West Bromwich Albion and Fulham in recent matches has reduced confidence to a low.
That Wolves has not won at home in eight games, while United boasts the best record on the road this season, should make for a comfortable away win. But, as ever in the Premier League, Ferguson’s must not count on securing the points without a level of performance significantly better than demonstrated in the double-header against Bilbao.
Paul Scholes’ return to the starting line up will inject some experience into midfield, ensuring that complacency does not against creep into United’s game. Scholes has completed around 90 per cent of his passes since returning to the side in January, while averaging more than 30 in the opposition half per game. It’s the kind of quality, quite remarkably from a 36-year-old, that could just win United the title.
Wolverhampton Wanderers versus Manchester United, Premier League, Molineux, 18 March 2012, 1.30pm.
Wolves (4-4-2): Hennessey; Ward, Johnson, Berra, Zubar; Kightly, Edwards, O’Hara, Jarvis; Fletcher, Doyle. Subs from: De Vries, Bassong, Stearman, Foley, Milijas, Ebanks-Blake, Hunt, Milijas.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Smalling, Jones, Giggs, Park, Cleverley, Pogba, Hernández, Berbatov.
- Wolves lost a potentially crucial game 2-0 against fellow relegation candidates Blackburn Rovers in the side’s last Premier League match;
- W Jamie O’Hara covered the most ground for Wolves in that game with 6.54 miles, although Wolves were out run by Blackburn by 63.01 miles to 60.42;
- United went top of the Premier League in the last round of games, taking advantage of City’s slip up at Swansea. Wayne Rooney scored both goals for United in a 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion, and covered 4.9 miles, second only to Ashley Young’s 4.97 miles as United’s strongest runner;
- Rooney’s goals were his 19th and 20th of the season, and the England striker is second only to Robin van Persie in the overall rankings of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Rooney has taken exactly 100 shots at goal in the Premier League season, with 66 shots on target, covering 20 into goals;
- Carrick completing 51 passes in his opponents half against West Brom – only Yaya Toure completed more in the last round of games;
- United’s Luis Nani, who is likely to miss the game, has delivered more than any other player in the Index with 116, while Wolves’ Matt Jarvis is third with 90 crosses so far this season;
- Nani is also one of two United player’s to have contributed ten or more assists this season, with Antonio Valencia also having done so – only five other players in the Index have achieved this.
Referee: Anthony Taylor (Manchester)
Assistants: S Beck, S Child
Fourth Official: H Webb