Rio Ferdinand will return to Sir Alex Ferguson’s team as Oțelul Galați visit Old Trafford for Wednesday’s Champions League Group C clash. But the defender’s recall comes with a stark warning from his manager and an admission that Ferdinand is no longer an automatic selection following United’s hammering by Manchester City recently.
Despite being fit the 33-year-old defender was dropped by Ferguson for United’s trip to Everton last weekend, marking a potential watershed in Ferdinand’s career after nearly a decade at the club. And Ferguson has warned the £30 million defender that he must adapt his game if the former Leeds United man is to compete with competition from United’s younger players.
Ferguson has five central defenders at his disposal, with Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones each under 23-years-of-age, and vying for a place in the Scot’s side.
“I explained to Rio the other day simply this – we have two young centre-backs coming through and I’m happy to have four and hope I can keep four of them for a long time,” said Ferguson on Tuesday.
“Rio’s almost 33 and has obviously lost the yard of pace he had five years ago but that doesn’t mean to say he can’t tailor his game into a different game where he doesn’t rely on pace. We’ve all faced that, the decisive moment in your career when you realise you have to change your game. I did that myself when I lost some sharpness so I tailored my game differently.
“In his time with us, eight years or so now, he’s been a fantastic, consistent performer, top-class and absolutely brilliant. Rio will rearrange his game a little bit but not drastically. He’s still one of the best footballers in the country in terms of his use of the ball. He has a great presence and can still tackle and head the ball. He’ll change, there’s no problem with that, and he’ll play a big part.”
Ferdinand will start alongside Evans on Wednesday, with Phil Jones or Fabio da Silva likely to come in at right-back as United seek to tighten up a back-four that has conceded regularly this season. Chris Smalling will miss the next month with a broken bone in his foot, while Rafael da Silva may play United’s reserve fixture on Thursday night.
“That we were loose is borne out by the statistics that have bandied about over the last few weeks,” added Ferguson.
“There has to be a balance in these matters. Nobody likes losing goals first of all and we have lost a few this season. But we also want to make sure the attacking part is always threatening.”
Although the temptation may be for Ferguson to make wholesale changes ahead of the international break, United’s need for points means that a strong selection is likely. Ashley Young will miss the fixture with a toe problem, meaning that two of Antonio Valencia, Park Ji-Sung and Nani are likely to start against the Romanian champions.
Meanwhile, in midfield Ferguson will be without Tom Cleverley once again, with the 22-year-old suffering a reaction to the ankle injury sustained in September. Cleverley played 55 minutes of United’s Premier League win at Everton but will sit out the next two Untied fixtures and England’s friendlies with Sweden and Spain next week.
The injury means a recall is likely for either Michael Carrick or Anderson to play alongside Darren Fletcher in midfield. The Scot missed around six months of last season with a mysterious viral infection but is now fully fit and central to Ferguson’s mission to tighten up United’s defensive game.
“I feel fine. I knew I would be, my natural fitness is always very good,” said the midfielder.
“I worked hard with the fitness coaches whilst the rest of the lads were away on tour. I reached my level fairly quickly, then it was a question of matches because the more you play, the more you get your sharpness back and awareness back. I was lucky in the respect I was able to get a few games for Scotland before I played for United, which definitely helped me. I have played 10 games so far this season and I feel as though I am back to the level I should be at.”
Oţelul arrive at Old Trafford seeking the first points of an inaugural Champions League campaign. Defeat to United in Bucharest, courtesy of two Wayne Rooney penalties, came after a suicidal defensive performance in the second period. Yet the Romanians will see an opportunity to finish third in the group and qualify for the Europa League, with Basel in disarray following Torsten Fink’s departure to Hamburg.
“We need to win, that’s for sure,” added Ferguson.
“Going on our experience from the last game, they’re a very organised, committed, strong and aggressive team. We’ll need a good performance to beat them. We may make one or two changes, not a great many, and they’ll be mainly because of injuries and things like that. But hopefully we’ve still got a strong enough team to win.”
It’s a tough ask for the Romanians whatever Ferguson’s selection. Including UEFA Intertoto Cup ties and UEFA Cup qualifying rounds, Oţelul have played 11 away matches in Europe and lost seven of them. Oţelul will be without Laurenţiu Buş, sidelined since October with an ankle problem, although defensive midfielder Ioan Filip and Adrian Sălăgeanu are both available. Summer signing Daniel Chávez is still not fit.
Manchester United versus Oţelul Galaţi, Champions League, Old Trafford, Wednesday 2 November 2011, 7.45pm
United (4-4-1-1): Lindegaard; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Fletcher, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: De Gea, Fabio, Pogba, Carrick, Giggs, Berbatov, Welbeck, Valencia, Owen, Diouf.
Oţelul Galaţi (4-2-3-1): Grahovac; Perendija, Salageanu, Râpă, Costin; Filip, Neagu, Frunză, Antal, Giurgiu; Punoševac, Subs from: Viglianti, Pena, Ilie, Skubič, Filip, Ljubinković, Antal, Ibeh, Frunză, Sălăgeanu, Paraschiv, , Benga, Iorga, Ilie, Cojoc, Chavez, Buchta, Novac.
Referee Marijo Strahonja (CRO)
Assistant referees: Sinisa Premuzaj, Zeljko Novosel
Additional assistant referees: Igor Pristovnik, Damir Batinić
Fourth official: Ante Vučemilović-Šimunović Jr.