Manchester United will move eight points clear of the pack with victory over Mark Hughes’ Queens Park Rangers this weekend. That United plays ahead of Manchester City – Roberto Mancini’s men facing in-form Arsenal at the Emirates at 4pm Sunday – is a quirk of the fixture list that will pile the pressure on the Italian’s men should United secure victory first. Just the incentive required to eliminate any hint of complacency with seven games remaining.
Hughes’ visitors, who have beaten both Arsenal and Liverpool in recent weeks, remain in a relegation dog-fight as one of five sides that could still go down. It should ensure a competitive fixture at Old Trafford, with little love lost between Hughes and his former mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Just as United demonstrated ample patience in victory over Blackburn Rovers on Monday night, Ferguson’s men will leave it late, if necessary, to secure three points at Old Trafford on Sunday. Indeed, says the United manager, the home side will draw on history should QPR prove to as stubborn as Blackburn.
Despite a growing sense of anticipation at Old Trafford, patience remains the watchword, with United closing in domestic title number 20.
“The game against QPR will be another like we experienced on Monday against a team fighting for their survival,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“They’re never easy – it wasn’t easy on Monday, but we managed to get a fantastic result with late goals. I don’t mind if we have to wait until the last 10 minutes again to win on Sunday. Over the years we have had these moments when we have scored late goals. Look back to 1993 and Sheffield Wednesday, two goals in the last nine minutes of injury-time. It is part of our history. We don’t give in. We are capable of scoring late goals. It is not an accident. There is a thread relating to the history of the club that way for many years now.
“This season you could point to the recovery at Chelsea, or you could point to Norwich or Monday night. With nine minutes to go it was still 0-0, but the players didn’t give in. They kept their intensity and concentration really well. That was the plus point on Monday. The intensity of our game was brilliant and our concentration was great.”
United’s increasing authority since Paul Scholes’ return in January is a marked feature of this season’s run-in, with the 37-year-old midfielder once again establishing the Reds as the best passing side in the country. It is just one of many relevant data points, perhaps, but United’s pass completion rate ranks highest of all Premier League teams since January. It was sixth best before Scholes’ return to Old Trafford.
Yet, while Scholes has been outstanding alongside Michael Carrick in the heart of United’s midfield over the past four months, as the Reds have passed their way to 10 victories in the past 11 domestic league fixtures, Ferguson knows that only points mean prizes at this stage of the season.
United dominated possession against Blackburn, only for two moments of inspiration from Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to win United the game and secure a five point Premier League lead.
“You have to grind results out and keep going and hope the team in front of you make mistakes or lose points,” added the 70-year-old Scot.
“You drop points in this league. It’s a fact. We all drop points. No-one goes through a season without dropping points. It is about when you drop them and, on the run-in, your aim is not to drop as many as your immediate opponents, which we haven’t done. We are in a good spell and are getting players back so there is some freshness in the team at the moment. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Ferguson welcomes Nani back into the United fold, with the Portuguese winger finally recovering from an ankle problem that has kept the former Sporting player on the sidelines for five matches. Meanwhile, Ferguson can report a full bill of health in defence, with both Phil Jones and Chris Smalling challenging for a position in United’s back four against QPR. Indeed, only long-term injury concerns Anderson, Nemanja Vidić, Darren Fletcher and Michael Owen are likely to miss out on Sunday’s fixture.
However, United’s manager is unlikely make many changes from the side that beat Blackburn at Ewood, with winger Young likely to come into the side for Phil Jones, who failed to impress in central midfield against his former employers. The lob-sided nature of United’s shape at Ewood eventually gave way to a more balanced, penetrative, attack as Ferguson used his full complement of substitutes.
If the formation at Ewood smacked of caution then Ferguson is likely to preach attack against QPR, even if the United manager is aware of the opposition’s desperation to secure a result at Old Trafford. Hughes’ side lies 17th in the Premier League, ahead of the relegation zone on goal difference alone.
“They are all wakening up I suppose,” added Ferguson of the relegation battle.
“No-one would have bet on QPR beating Liverpool and Arsenal two weeks in a row and Wigan have had hit a bit of form too. The statistics for teams at the bottom picking up points are not good. What we had last weekend which was exceptional. All of a sudden Blackburn are right back into it and Villa are not out of it either.”
Meanwhile, Rangers’ manager Hughes welcomes back strikers Heidar Helguson and DJ Campbell from injury after the pair played in a friendly with West Ham United on Wednesday. The strike pair will have to settle for a place on the bench. However, former City players Joey Barton and Nedum Onuoha will start at Old Trafford, although neither player’s form has justified the reported £60-80,000 per week in wages.
Former United player Hughes has enjoyed an oft feisty relationship with Ferguson since turning his hand to management, first with first Wales and then Blackburn, City and then Fulham. But Hughes, who played 467 games, scoring 163 goals, in two spells with United, concedes that the title is likely to be heading to Old Trafford this season, whatever the result on Sunday.
“I think at this stage of the season there is a little bit of a sense of inevitability,” admitted the 48-year-old manager.
“United have been in this situation so many times before, Manchester City haven’t and I think that can be key in this situation. You sense that United are looking at fixtures, taking each game on its merits and just ticking off games they have to play from now until the end of the season. You sense United are in the box-seat and you would be very surprised if they lost it from the position they find themselves in now.”
And history is on United’s side, not only in the title race, but in this fixture. Sunday’s match will be the 10th Premier League meeting between the two clubs, with the visitors having failed to win any of the previous nine encounters. Ferguson will fully understand this is no time to change that sequence of results.
Manchester United versus Queens Park Rangers, Premier League, Old Trafford, 8 April 2012, 2pm.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Smalling, Jones, Giggs, Park, Cleverley, Nani, Pogba, Welbeck, Berbatov.
QPR (4-5-1): Kenny; Hill, Ferdinand, Onuoha, Taiwo; Mackie, Diakite, Derry, Barton Taarabt; Zamora. Subs from: Cerny, Gabbidon, Young, Buzsaky, Wright-Phillips, Campbell, Bothroyd, Helguson.
- United scored two late goals courtesy of Valencia and Young to beat Blackburn on Monday night. Young, who has made nine assists this season, claimed his fifth goal of the season;
- Young is fifth in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for shooting accuracy, discounting players who have had fewer than twenty shots at goal, getting 74 per cent of his 43 shots at goal on target;
- Valencia’s goals have come from just 14 shots, putting him in the top ten for shots per goal this season, needing just 3.5 shots for each goal;
- United defender Rio Ferdinand is one of only two players in the EA Index to have attempted over 20 tackles without losing a single one. Rio has won 23 tackles so far this season;
- Team-mate Phil Jones is ranked sixth in tackles won, having won 94 per cent of the 36 tackles he has attempted this season
- Meanwhile, United’s visitors QPR secured a shock victory against Arsenal in the last round of Premier League games. Goals from Adel Taarabt and Samba Diakite gave QPR three vital points, meaning the west Londoners are level with relegation rivals Blackburn and Wigan Athletic;
- Taarabt’s goal was his first of the season, despite being 16th overall in the Index for shots at goal, with 65 shots in total and 65 per cent on target;
- QPR midfielder Akos Buzsacky has made 27 shots at goal this season, one every 23 and a half minutes while on the pitch – nobody shoots more frequently in the Premier League.
Referee: Lee Mason (Bolton)
Assistants: A Garratt, D C Richards
Fourth Official: K Friend