Wolverhampton Wanderers visit Old Trafford for the second time in 10 days, with the hosts looking to extend a winning streak that runs to five games. Unbeaten in 17 matches this season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will close to within two points of Chelsea with victory over relegation threatened Wolves, with the leaders not in action until Sunday afternoon.
United’s task is not aided by a lengthy absentee list, with key players either missing or struggling for fitness. Nani, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs are likely to miss the fixture, while Darren Fletcher is doubtful after injuring his foot scoring United’s opening goal against Bursaspor.
Giggs has trained all week and Ferguson will make a late call on the Welshman’s inclusion.
Meanwhile Anderson, Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson have been laid low by the virus sweeping the United camp in recent days. Ferguson missed Friday morning’s press conference with the bug as assistant Mike Phelan deputised. The manager will return to sit on United’s bench Saturday afternoon alongside the trio.
However, with the derby against cross-town rivals Manchester City in midweek, Ferguson’s men could be forgiven for losing focus for Saturday’s clash. After all, the Wolves’ fixture, important in its own right, is already overshadowed by the build up to Wednesday’s game.
“The next game is the most important game. We know how difficult it can be if you take your eye off the game. Wolves are our next opponents and they will be tough,” said Phelan.
“What Wolves have shown is a great resilience to play in the Premier League. They’ve started to play some seriously good football over the last month or so. They’ve taken good teams to the edge.
“I’ve heard everyone is requesting Wolves play a strong side. We always intend to do that and we will put our best side on the pitch we can.”
United can welcome back Rio Ferdinand, who was rested for United’s trip to Turkey in midweek. Chris Smalling will drop to the bench despite another solid display against Bursaspor.
Injuries mean that Bébé will make the United bench at a minimum, with Ferguson likely to keep faith with Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov up front. The Bulgarian has failed to score in seven matches despite an excellent start to the season.
Meanwhile, Rooney will miss both United’s match against Wolves and the derby after United sent the striker to recuperate at the Nike World campus in Oregon. United visited the campus during the club’s American tour in 2003, which houses Nike’s headquarters.
The striker has not appeared for United since signing a new £180,000 a week contract after protracted and very public negotiations last month. Death threats were made against the 25-year-old as the now infamous ‘men in black’ visited the star’s home before Rooney signed.
United, keen to avoid additional publicity in derby week, hope that Rooney will recuperate away from the media spotlight.
The striker will join Nike World’s endurance training programme – “Sparq” – which aims to increase the Rooney’s speed, power, agility, reactions and quickness to elite-level fitness. The plan is to undergo a full week of individual conditioning work, before Rooney returns to Carrington next weekend.
“We have the facilities here, but we thought might be in the best interests of him and the club to have a change of scenery for a little while,” adds Phelan.
“He can go there without the attention that would get around here.”
Meanwhile, Mick McCarthey is expected to name a full strength side. The former Republic of Ireland manager made 10 changes for the corresponding fixture last season, incurring widespread criticism and a £25,000 fine by the FA.
McCarthey is without injured quartet Jody Craddock, Adlene Guedioura, Michael Kightly and Ronald Zubar but can welcome back key players from the side that played United in the Carling Cup. This includes ‘keeper Marcus Hannemann, who this week was critical of Heurelho Gomes’ role in Nani’s controversial winner against Tottenham Hotspur.
Meanwhile, the United manager defended McCarthy against recent criticism by former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy that the Midland’s side it too aggressive.
“It is an insult to the managers of the teams, because you couldn’t get two more honest guys than Tony Pulis and Mick McCarthy,” Ferguson told Inside United magazine.
“Players are babies now. In my day you had to hit someone with a hatchet before a referee booked you. It’s a different game now.”
Wolves – 451 – Hahnemann; Foley, Berra, Stearman, Ward; Jarvis, Edwards, Henry, Milijas, Hunt; Doyle. Subs from: Hennessey, Fletcher, Ebanks-Blake, Jones, Bent, Mouyokolo, Mujangi Bia, Mancienne, Van Damme.
Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Rafael, Brown, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Smalling, Evans, Evra, Fabio, Obertan, Bébé, Carrick, Scholes, Fletcher, Anderson, Giggs, Park, Berbatov, Hernández, Macheda.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistant referees: Stephen Child & Billy Smallwood
Fourth official: Mike Jones
United – DDWWWW
Wolves – LLLDLW