Paul Scholes makes a welcome return as Birmingham City visit Old Trafford this afternoon. The 36-year-old playmaker has missed almost two months action with a groin problem but start for Manchester United’s second fixture with the Midlanders inside a month. With Manchester City in action this evening, United can move three points clear in the Premier League with victory over Alex McCleish’s outfit.
However, manager Sir Alex Ferguson must compensate for Rafael da Silva’s absence at right-back, with the 20-year-old defender serving a one-match suspension following his dismissal against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. The Brazilian escaped further censure after an FA hearing on Thursday handed the defender an £8,000 fine and a warning about his future conduct following an angry reaction to Mike Dean’s decision at White Hart Lane.
John O’Shea, who played for the reserves during the week, Wes Brown or Fabio da Silva could come into the side in Rafael’s absence.
“Replacing Rafa is something I’ll have to consider, plus one or two other changes,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.
“Fabio could possibly come in. John O’Shea and Wes Brown are back in training and played for the Reserves, so they’re both available. Other than that, everyone is OK.
“Paul Scholes played an hour in the Reserves and he was on the bench at Tottenham. I was ready to put him on before Rafael got sent off.
“The Birmingham games in the last few years haven’t produced a lot of goals. Hopefully we can change that trend. Our home form has been very good this season, and it has to be now. It’s kicking on time.”
Rafael’s loss is a measure of the progress the 20-year-old has made this season, with the Brazilian now a permanent fixture in Ferguson’s side, prompting Gary Neville’s likely retirement in the summer. Wes Brown is also set to move on in 2011 but Ferguson has ruled out any departure on loan this winter.
However, Scholes’ return boosts United’s creative options, which were conspicuous by their absence at Spurs last weekend. Superb defensively, United created just four shots on target against the Londoners. Ryan Giggs is also likely to play, with the Welshman confirming he is seeking another year’s contract with the club.
“Antonio is doing well now, he has started his running programme and he’s out with the physios every day, which is a big step forward,” said Ferguson.
“He’s been given the all clear from the doctors, so he’s under our complete control now. That’s great news.
“I think possibly towards the end of February he should be back in the first team squad. That’s a big boost to us.”
Ferguson will resist the temptation to rest Wayne Rooney though, despite the player’s continued below-par form. The striker misplaced 50 per cent of attempted passes against Spurs and has scored just one goal from open play all season.
Meanwhile, Birmingham City arrives in Manchester having not scored at Old Trafford for 30 years and lost nine times in a row at the Theatre of Dreams. But McCleish’s outfit earned a point at St. Andrews on Boxing Day, with Dimitar Berbatov scoring United’s only goal before the home side secured a controversial late equaliser.
For Birmingham, Cameron Jerome and Sebastian Larsson are available after both missed last weekend’s derby with Aston Villa. And Ben Foster returns to Old Trafford for the first time since his £6 million move south in the summer. However, key defender Scott Dann has been ruled out through injury until the summer.
Should United avoid defeat it will stretch the club’s unbeaten Premier League run to 26 matches, across two seasons. United is only the seventh in top-flight history to remain unbeaten after 21 league matches. Nobody at Old Trafford will countenance a change in that record today.
Birmingham – 451 – Foster; Carr, Johnson, Ridgewell, Murphy; Bentley, Larsson, Gardner, Ferguson, Hleb; Jerome. Subs from: Fahey, Zigic, Bowyer, Taylor, Jiranek, Beausejour, Mutch, Phillips, Derbyshire.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Scholes, Giggs; Berbatov, Rooney. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Amos, Evans, Brown, Smalling, O’Shea, Carrick, Gibson, Owen, Bébé, Obertan, Hernández, Obertan, Anderson.
Referee: Mike Jones
Assistant referees: John Flynn & Andy Madley
Fourth official: Phil Dowd
United – WDWWWD
Birmingham – DLDLWD