Manchester United travel to the second city for the second time in a week, confident of adding just a second Premier League win on the road this season. Despite Birmingham City’s last-minute equaliser at St Andrews on Boxing Day, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men travel in the knowledge a win will take the Reds three points clear of the pack.
Ferguson, 69 yesterday, could rest key players following a busy festive programme, with West Bromwich Albion’s form having tailed off recently despite a bright start to the season. Indeed, the Baggies have lost three times in a row following early season wins that included victory at Arsenal.
Rio Ferdinand could step aside with Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling vying for a place in Ferguson’s side. Meanwhile, one of Wayne Rooney or Dimitar Berbatov could start on the bench, with Javier Hernández and Federico Macheda short of minutes in recent weeks.
However, Nani returns to bolster United’s options in wide areas which have been limited in recent matches with Park Ji-Sung at the Asia Cup for the next month. Paul Scholes is still injured so two of Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson, Michael Carrick and Anderson will start in central midfield, with Gabriel Obertan likely to come into the side for Ryan Giggs.
Should Rooney start on the bench the former Evertonian could be denied an opportunity to score from open play for the first time this season – both of the striker’s two goals have come from the spot.
“Wayne does need a goal,” Ferguson admitted yesterday.
“It’s not an unusual situation where a striker goes a length of time without scoring and it becomes a confidence thing. I see it often. When they score they don’t think they’re going to miss and when they’re not scoring they don’t think they’re ever going to score. A goal will come his way. He just needs to keep the belief that it will happen.”
However, the 25-year-old has finally admitted his behaviour erred during contract negotiations in October, although Rooney again stopped short of apologising to United supporters. Rooney questioned the club’s ambition, with supporters angry that a rumoured deal with Manchester City was on the cards – so much so that a group of ‘men in black’ visited the player’s Alderley Edge home, carrying a banner that read “Join City and you’re dead,” while Nike’s Manchester city centre stored was vandalised with similar threats.
“I looked out and saw 30 blokes with their hoods up,” the player told MUTV.
“I wasn’t going to invite them in for tea. I understand some of the fans were disappointed and felt let down. It was just a bit intimidating to look out and see them all there.
“I went to see the manager and David Gill and basically asked them for answers. I now realise it had nothing to do with me. I got the answers in the end but, looking back, it was probably wrong of me to do that. I just wanted to make sure that signing was the right thing to do and I got the answers in the end.”
Meanwhile, Albion will be without three key defenders for United’s visit. Vice-captain Jonas Olsson is injured, while Gonzalo Jara and Gabriel Tamaş will both serve suspensions. The sides drew 2-2 earlier this season, with the Baggies unlucky not to score their first win at Old Trafford since 1978. The visitors’ goals came from just two shots – and a horrendous Edwin van der Sar error – but the quality of Roberto di Matteo’s side could have brought more.
However, it is the Midlands outfit’s defence that is threatening to unravel a promising season – di Matteo’s outfit have kept just one clean sheet all season. It’s a stat that Rooney, if he plays, will want to exploit.
West Brom – 451 – Carson; Barnes, Scharner, Pablo, Shorey; Tchoyi, Mulumbu, Morrison, Dorrans, Thomas; Odemwingie. Subs from: Myhill, Cech, Miller, Reid, Cox, Fortuné, Thomas, Cox, Miller, Méïté, Hurst, Zuiverloon, Thorne
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Gibson, Fletcher, Obertan; Rooney, Hernández. Subs from: Carrick, Kuzszazk, Amos, Fabio da Silva, Evans, O’Shea, Brown, Anderson, Bébé, Macheda, Owen, Ferdinand, Berbatov, Giggs.
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistant referees: John Flynn & Bob Pollack
Fourth official: Mark Halsey
West Brom – LWWLLL
United – WLDWWD