Sir Alex Ferguson will return to the Manchester United bench against Bolton Wanderers – baring a last-minute scouting trip to Wolverhampton of course – after his midweek Spanish sojourn. The Scot returns to lead United as the Reds look to maintain Premier League momentum after last weekend’s victory over Liverpool.
The Reebok Stadium has been a happy hunting ground in recent seasons, with United cruising to a comfortable 4-0 win last season and four victories in the last five visits across Lancashire. Dimitar Berbatov struck twice in March, and the Bulgarian, who has scored seven in six games this season, will look to continue the rich vein of form that brought a hat-trick against Liverpool last weekend.
Indeed, with Wayne Rooney suffering under the weight of severe media scrutiny it is to the Bulgarian that United will look as Ferguson’s side faces three challenging away fixtures in the next six days. With the press on Rooney’s tail, Ferguson gives the impression that his star player’s malaise may last months not weeks.
“I don’t believe he has a confidence problem but the boy is starting to realise finally, without any question, what kind of focus is on him as a human being,” said Ferguson this week.
“He is realising what it means to be at the centre of media attention for non-football-related questions.
“I don’t think the boy can turn a corner at the moment without a camera on him. He can’t move without the paparazzi being on him and, for a young person, that is not what you want. You want to play and enjoy your football without that attention on you, because that can be quite exhausting.”
Exhausting is probably a fair description of United’s schedule over the next week as well, with the fixture against Valencia in the south-eastern Spanish city next Wednesday followed rapidly by a visit to Sunderland. With that in mind Ferguson is likely to rotate his resources, despite United fielding a shadow side against Scunthorpe United in midweek.
Ferguson, mindful of Paul Scholes’ inability to play three games in a week, may choose to rest the flame-haired midfielder tomorrow with the midweek Champions League fixture taking priority. United can close in on Chelsea after the Londoners’ failure at Manchester City today but the Scot can call on Anderson, who completed the full 90 minutes against Scunthorpe, and Michael Carrick who is fit again after an achilles heel problem.
Meanwhile Ferguson will not consider Owen Hargreaves, who returned to first team training this week after two months rehabilitation in Denver, despite expressing surprise at the Canadian-born midfielder’s progress in the past week.
In defence captain Nemanja Vidic is likely to partner Rio Ferdinand as United look to continue an unbeaten run that has been punctuated by poor defending this season. The undoubtedly talented but out-of-form Jonny Evans will drop to the bench on Rio’s return.
Berbatov meanwhile claims to have overcome the kind of self-doubt that has permeated the Bulgarian’s stay in Manchester. Unfairly labelled both aloof and arrogant, the £30.5 million striker is now benefiting both from a summer fitness programme and a renewed sense of belief that comes with regular scoring.
The former Tottenham Hotspur player now admits what many have suspected: the transfer fee has weighed heavily for the past two seasons.
“You try not to think about it but sometimes you just can’t help it,” said Berbatov.
“You start thinking it’s a lot of money and what’s going to happen if you don’t prove you’re good enough for that amount of money and if you don’t score enough goals.
“These thoughts are always going through my mind and sometimes it can be bad for your concentration because it does distract you from the goal I have to play and enjoy my football.”
Fortunate for United then that Owen Coyle’s Bolton must face a renewed Berbatov without Gary Cahill, the defender who has forced his way into Fabio Capello’s England plans this year. The Trotters will also be without Ricardo Gardner, Andrew O’Brien and Jlloyd Samuel for the local derby.
Bolton – Bogdán; Steinsson, Knight, Ricketts, Robinson; Petrov, Muamba, Holden; Chung-Yong, K Davies, Elmander. Subs from: Lainton, Klasnic, Moreno, Blake, Taylor, M Davies, Mustapha, Klasnić, Rodrigo, Cohen, Blake, Davis, Alonso.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistant referees: Bob Pollock & Glenn Turner
Fourth official: Mark Clattenburg
Bolton – WWDLDL
United – DWDDWW