In the end Manchester United was a comfortable winner on Tuesday night, topping Group B with points to spare. But in beating VfL Wolfsburg short of eight defenders it’s easy to forget the deficiencies that threatened to undermined United’s progress this season. When the competition resumes, United will need a full compliment of in-form defenders.
The draw for the knockout stages of the Champions League will take place at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland on Friday 18 December. And while Sir Alex Ferguson is seeking the kindest possible draw – Olympiakos, Stuttgart or Porto come to mind – the fitness of key defenders Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic is surely just as high on the Scot’s Christmas wish list.
The Champions League first knockout round first-leg ties is played over four nights in February, with the second legs scheduled for mid-March. In between United has a run of eminently winnable matches against Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Fulham, Hull City and Wigan Athletic before cup ties against Manchester City and Leeds United. Indeed, United won’t face another ‘top four’ team until Ferguson’s side visit Arsenal on 31 January.
But with long-term injuries to Ferdinand and fellow central defender Evans, Ferguson may want to call on the Gods of good fortune to ensure Vidic and Wes Brown stay healthy before the season enters heats up in February and beyond. Should either face further time on the sidelines over the Christmas programme and into the New Year better sides than Wolfsburg will surely take advantage.
Injuries are not the only defensive concern for Sir Alex though. Lest he forget the individual errors that have already cost United this season. Should Ferdinand return to fitness as 2009 draws to a close there is no guarantee that the former Leeds and West Ham United defender’s form will accompany it. Costly errors by the central defender against Manchester City and for England in Holland, among others, have served to highlight Ferdinand’s fragile form, as well as his fitness.
Both player and manager will hope that a new year brings better fortune.
Ferguson must also resolve lingering doubts not only over Vidic’s fitness but form and mental state too. While the Serbian defender is widely considered to have suffered a dip in form following United’s heavy Old Trafford loss to Liverpool last season, longer-term concerns surround the defender’s willingness to stay at the club.
“I am glad to have been part of this club for so many years and if I could be one of the bases on which a new team is built I would be very happy,” said the former Spartak Moscow defender recently.
“I have never said I want to go and play in another country. Other people have spoken or written about it and I am not happy with that. The fact is I am happy here.”
But Vidic is yet to sign the contract extension on the table at Old Trafford. It would increase the Serbian’s wages to more than £100,000 per week. While the Serbian is contracted to the club until 2012, rumours that Vidic is willing to leave the club for warmer climes – both Milan and Barcelona are interested in the defender – will continue until he signs. If he signs.
In the meantime Ferguson must hope that rest cures the ills of Evans, Ferdinand and the rest. Bonne chance at next Friday’s draw wouldn’t go amiss either.