Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic makes a welcome return for the Reds, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s injury-hit squad faces a less than welcoming Upton Park fixture. Rio Ferdinand is back in training but not available for the Saturday lunchtime game with West Ham United, while Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Rafael da Silva are all injured. Adding to Ferguson’s defensive problems, Northern Irish international Jonny Evans will sit out the first of three matches following a red card against Bolton Wanderers a fortnight ago.
Vidic’s return and no fresh injuries during the international break is a welcome bonus for Ferguson, who says that the intensity of the modern game is the cause of the latest Old Trafford injury crisis. With United still chasing a remarkable and very unlikely treble there are echoes of the club’s all-conquering 1999 season.
“The kind of games Manchester United are playing today are far more competitive than they were in 1999,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“The speed of the game has increased, the standard of training and pitches has improved, so everything’s faster. The game is quicker and therefore you run the risk of injury because of that.
“The big one is Saturday, because we are depleted in one area of the pitch. With eight games to go, you can’t exclude anyone. Whoever is the most consistent will win this league. But we should not over-stretch ourselves in terms of looking forward – this game is as important as any.
“I thought the two-week break would bring a few of our injured players on. It has, but not enough for them to play against West Ham. We are considerably short for the right-back position. We have to solve that – and find the right solution.”
“Rio has started training. He has only been training two days and then just a light session today. I have to decide whether we bring him in tomorrow, or give him a day off and start him on Wednesday again. He is more likely to be fit for the Fulham game.”
With so many injuries Ferguson’s back-four almost picks itself, and with Darren Fletcher still suffering from a mystery stomach bug and Paul Scholes sitting out the second of a two-match ban, the Scot is also short in central midfield. Anderson trained this week, although there is no guarantee the 22-year-old Brazilian will be thrust back into Premier League action. Meanwhile Park Ji-Sung is in United’s matchday squad after overcoming a knee complaint.
Ferguson’s comparatively meagre resources could mean another game at the head of United’s midfield for Wayne Rooney, who has excelled in a deeper position in recent weeks. Either Javier Hernández, who played and scored for Mexico over the international break, or Dimitar Berbatov will lead United’s line.
And striker Rooney believes that United’s home form could win the Reds a 19th domestic league title. It certainly won’t be the club’s performances on the road, which have brought just five Premier League wins away from fortress Old Trafford this season.
“I have been a player in the away dressing room and I know the fear you feel before the game and you are not expected to get anything out of it,” said Rooney, who played at Old Trafford for Everton in 2003.
“So we have that psychological advantage even before the game starts but we know we are good enough to beat anyone here.
“I grew up an Everton fan so to be part of the team to overtake Liverpool’s record would be brilliant. It would mean so much to us players as well as the fans. It is something I have been thinking about a lot. I know all the Everton fans want us to do it and hopefully we can.
“You look forward to every game at this stage and you’ve got to enjoy it, especially when you are in the running for a few trophies. It is exciting for the fans and it’s exciting for the players knowing that you are just a few weeks away from possibly winning a major trophy or two.”
Meanwhile, West Ham captain Scott Parker should play despite picking up a shoulder injury on international duty this week, although Frederic Piquionne is unlikely to start for Avram Grant’s outfit. Indeed, the Israeli says that his captain should be named Footballer of the Year after a series of outstanding performances for the Londoners this season.
“I think, without any doubt, that he’s the player of the year. I don’t see any player that is better than him,” said Grant.
“And if you also want to nominate a player who’s a good example, it’s good for everybody. He’s a player who always gives everything, always trains well, is always positive and always gives everything for the team. If we are in a position that we can stay in the league it’s because we took points in the first half of the season, sometimes without 10 or 11 players. And he played and he was very good.”
Despite the Hammers’ seemingly excellent record against United, including a 4-0 Carling Cup quarter-final victory in the driving snow just before Christmas, West Ham have lost their last five league games against the Reds without scoring a goal. It’s the kind of record that Ferguson is desperate to for his side to maintain.
West Ham – 451 – Green; Jacobsen, da Costa, Upson, Bridge; O’Neil, Parker, Hitzlsperger, Noble, Obinna; Ba. Subs from: Boffin, Gabbidon, Tomkins, Boa Morte, Sears, Hines, Spector, Keane, Cole, Reid, Kovac.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Fabio, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Carrick, Gibson; Valencia, Rooney, Nani; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Berbatov, Bébé, Park, Obertan, Tunnicliffe, Morrison, King, Giggs, Park Ji-Sung, Anderson.
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistant referees: Darren Cann & Patrick Keane
Fourth official: Stuart Attwell
West Ham – DWWWLD
United – WWDWWW