Manchester United heads south this weekend at the start of a testing stretch for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. The Scot’s side visits Arsenal on Sunday, with a month of potentially decisive fixtures ahead. But Ferguson must again do without without a phalanx of key players at the Emirates as injury continues to bite into the Scot”s resources.
Yet, with Tom Cleverley back in light training, Ashley Young slowly on the mend and a handful of other players ready to feature against the Londoners, Ferguson can at least see some light at the end of a long injury tunnel. It will be a huge boon to United’s chances of taking a 20th domestic league title in May.
Cleverley moves from the gym to running outdoors this week, with the 22-year-old now out of the cast that has protected an injured ankle since the midfielder hobbled off against Everton in October. The youngster departed just 58 minutes into his return from a similar injury suffered against Bolton Wanders on 10 September.
With Cleverley went the vibrant and now seemingly long forgotten flowing football of the late summer. Yet, progress in Cleverley’s rehabilitation means that the England midfielder can realistically look to play some part in United’s Europa League double-header with Ajax in mid February. The midfielder’s return has been a very long time coming, as Ferguson’s side has stuttered through matches with a patched up engine room over the past three months.
Indeed, Michael Carrick aside, there has been little consistency in United’s midfield for months. With Anderson and Darren Fletcher also injured, Ferguson has deployed half-a-dozen players in central midfield this season – Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs, Darron Gibson, Park Ji Sung, and even Rafael da Silva. All too often with little effect as the Reds slipped behind Manchester City in the title race, and out of Europe in the group stages.
In the meantime, Ferguson’s men will face Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, twice, before Cleverley is ready to start for United again. It is genuinely scary stuff, leaving Ferguson with a big call at the weekend: whether to retain formerly retired veteran Paul Scholes alongside Carrick, risk Anderson’s fitness, or go with Giggs’ experience against the Gooners.
Meanwhile, Ferguson’s midfield options will increase further when former Aston Villa winger Ashley Young returns to the side in early February. The 26-year-old, also recovering from an ankle injury, should be ready for selection for United’s Premier League match against Liverpool at Old Trafford.
“It’s going well. I’ve been in the gym most days but it’s getting there and hopefully I’ll be back soon,” said Young during a Betfair webcast on Thursday.
“I’m enjoying it. From the minute I stepped into the building, I was welcomed with open arms by everybody in the squad. All the staff have been brilliant. There’s competition for places all around the team so you’ve always got to be on your toes.
“It’s going to be a tough game [on Sunday], but I’m sure we’ll go down there full of confidence and looking to get three points – as we do in any game. There’s a lot of points to play for and everyone wants to be top of the table but there’s plenty of games left and we’ve got to concentrate on ourselves and look to go down there and win.”
In Young’s absence Antonio Valencia has flourished on the right-wing. Gone are the tentative displays of early season. Back is the dynamic, decisive, attacking Ecuadorian who so impressed fans during his debut season at Old Trafford. Young’s own form has been mixed, much like Ferguson’s side.
Following two defeats over Christmas, United can hardly lose any more points now, especially with City at home to Tottenham Hotspur this weekend. That City may well be six points ahead by the time United kick off at the Emirates will only heap pressure on the Reds to grind out a result, at a ground where Arsenal blow distinctly hot and cold. Arsene Wenger’s men have lost two in a row on the road, but still retain, in Robin van Persie, the league’s in-form goalscorer.
It won’t get any easier for Ferguson’s men over the next month though. United travel to Liverpool for what is likely to be an intense, potentially draining, FA cup tie in just over a week. Matches against Chelsea, Liverpool – again – and Ajax follow.
It is a pity, then, that neither Cleverley, nor Young, will be fully match sharp for a series that will surely decide United’s fate in two domestic and one European competition. In a season of more slings and arrows than Ferguson will care to remember, the Scot can but hope that the duo’s return marks the end of the most serious injury crisis at Old Trafford in the past decade.
It is gratifying at least that Ferguson should be able to call on defenders Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones at Arsenal.
A midfielder or two? Perchance to dream, as somebody might once have said.
Reds’ tricky series
22 Jan – Premier League – Arsenal A
28 Jan – FA Cup – Liverpool A
31 Jan – Premier League – Stoke City H
05 Feb – Premier League – Chelsea A
11 Feb – Premier League – Liverpool H
16 Feb – Europa League – Ajax A
23 Feb – Europa League – Ajax H