Sir Alex Ferguson’s call for a “line to be drawn in the sand” over the mutual animosity between Liverpool and Manchester United fans dominated the day’s headlines. It is a malevolence that has led to some sections of each support using the deaths at Hillsborough and Munich to their own spiteful ends. And Ferguson’s is a call that will be severely tested in the hotbed atmosphere at Anfield in just over a week, when the abuse delivered will almost certainly be for the victim of racial abuse, Patrice Evra, rather than the memories of the dead.
But Anfield is for another day. On Saturday Ferguson has other concerns, with his squad returning from the international break fatigued, injured and, in some cases, without a match in two weeks; no wonder the Scot has little time for anything beyond the club game.
Indeed, the most poorly timed date in the international calendar may leave Ferguson without new acquisitions, Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, for the weekend clash with Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford.
van Persie played just half of Netherlands’ match with Hungary on Tuesday before withdrawing with a minor leg injury, while Kagawa missed Japan’s victory over Iraq during the week due to a sore back. Each is apparently fit, but with a Champions League match against Galatasary before the trip to Anfield, Ferguson may well be tempted to take no risks with either.
Elsewhere, United’s 70-year-old manager reported no fresh injury concerns, with Darren Fletcher set to join the match-day party, although the Scot’s participation in the match is thought unlikely. Fletcher has not played a first team game for United since November 2011.
Yet, it is with international travel that Ferguson is concerned most ahead of Wigan’s visit, with the core of his squad having departed across the world in the past fortnight.
“On the injury front, everyone’s fit, apart from the ones we know about – Jones and Smalling,” said Ferguson.
“Jones was a bad blow for us. He got an injury in training last weekend and he’ll be out for eight to 10 weeks. We expect Smalling to be back training by the end of the month. There’s a little bit of comfort in that sense, given our centre-back situation. But with Jonny [Evans] back we’re in a better position than we were a couple of weeks ago.
“You always have concerns about players travelling in international breaks – we had Chicharito, Valencia and Kagawa. They’ve all done it before, although with Shinji we don’t know exactly how he reacts to travelling back from long distances. Hopefully he’ll be okay.”
Ashley Young returns to the squad after missing England’s matches in the past week, while Ferguson will choose between the former Aston Villa man, Nani and Antonio Valencia in wide areas. Valencia’s lengthy trip to South America for two Ecuador matches in midweek may count against the 27-year-old, although much depends on the fitness or otherwise of van Persie and Kagawa, with Wayne Rooney unlikely to return this month.
“Wayne’s doing very well,” added Sir Alex.
“The scar’s healed well and he’s training terrifically. The issue now is when do we decide to bring him into the game? We have to take the medical advice on that one. He’s training very well but he’s not back in football training yet. All his work is being done with the physios at this point in time.”
Ferguson may choose to bring Paul Scholes into United’s midfield if Kagawa fails to make the game, with Tom Cleverley reprising his more advanced England role for United. The Reds’ manager must also choose between Anders Lindegaard and David de Gea behind a back-four that has leaked five goals this season.
Meanwhile, the few players remaining at Old Trafford – those not on international duty in the past week – were left to kick their heels with assistant manager Mike Phelan, with Ferguson landing in New York for Andy Murray’s US Open tennis final.
Indeed, old timers Rio Ferdinand, Scholes cand Ryan Giggs were among the few left at Carrington, and each could hit a milestone for the club against Wigan if selected. Ferdinand is approaching his 400th game in all competitions, Scholes his 700th, and for Giggs a 600th in the Premier League. None, it can be assumed, will have enjoyed training with the kids at a deserted Carrington.
“You really feel it when you’re not involved in international football,” admitted Ferdinand.
“You’re just sitting and waiting around thinking: ‘When is the next game coming?’ When the games are coming week in and week out, with two or three matches a week, this is the time when you enjoy it the most.”
Meanwhile, Roberto Martinez’ Wigan arrive having suffered just three defeats in the past 14 games – a sequence that included a devastating victory over United at the DW Stadium last April. United’s defeat to near-neighbours Wigan came as the Reds threw away an eight point lead during last season’s run-in.
But Martinez has also built a fine attacking side on a very limited budget, with the club’s best players poached by larger clubs each summer. Indeed, left-winger Victor Moses left for Chelsea in a £10 million deal during the latest transfer window, although the goalscorer from Wigan’s April victory, Shaun Maloney, remains at the club.
Wigan travel with few injury concerns, although the Latics may be without Jean Beausejour and Antolin Alcaraz. Midfielder James McArthur should be fit after recovering from a back injury.
Martinez can hardly afford any absentees given Wigan’s horrific record at Old Trafford since the Latics promotion to the nation’s top division.
“The last seven visits to Old Trafford have been a real uphill task for us; 24 goals conceded and one goal scored, from the penalty spot, tells its own story,” admitted Martinez.
It is a record that makes United firm favourites to secure a third Premier League win of the season. Yet, the clubs’ last meeting means few at Old Trafford will be counting the points secured just yet. That can wait until just before 5pm on Saturday afternoon.
Manchester United v Wigan Athletic – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 15 September 2012, 3pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Scholes, Carrick; Nani, Cleverley, Young; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Evans, Büttner, Powell, Giggs, Anderson, Kagawa, Fletcher, Valencia, Van Persie, Macheda, Hernández, Bébé.
Wigan (3-5-2): Habsi; Boyce, Caldwell, Ramis; Miyachi, McArthur, McCarthy, Maloney, Figueroa; Di Santo, Koné. Subs from: Pollitt, Crusat, Gómez, Jones, Watson, Fyvie, Stam, McManaman, Boselli, Redmond, López, Kiernan, Mustoe.
Referee: M Oliver
Assistants: S Ledger, C Breakspear
Fourth Official: P Dowd
Last 10: United 9, Wigan 1, draw 0
Overall: United 14, Wigan 1, draw 0
- Robin van Persie’s hat-trick against Southampton last week stole the points for United, but 45 per cent of the Dutchman’s 11 shots so far have been off target – unusually low for the normally accurate striker;
- Michael Carrick has been the focal point of United’s midfield once against this season, having received the ball 285 times this season according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Not only has Antonio Valencia provided the most crosses so far in the Premier League this season with 16, but the Ecuadorian has also made 55 successful passes in the attacking third of the pitch;
- Martinez was disappointed that his side could not close out the game against Stoke City two week’s ago, with the match ending 2-2 despite goals from Shaun Maloney and Franco di Santo looking to have secured the win for the Latics;
- Defender Ivan Ramis has produced some excellent defensive work so far this season, being successful with 90 per cent of his 10 tackles so far and conceding only two fouls;
- Gary Caldwell will be looking for more consistency given his mixed start to the season – despite conceding fouls in 45 per cent of his challenges, the defender has contributed 10 clearances and 21 interceptions according to the Index;
- Martinez will no doubt be pleased with the performances of Emmerson Boyce recently – the 33-year-old has provided 12 crosses this season already;
- Boyce also ranks second in the Index for top speed recorded by any player this season with 23.07 mph;
- Meanwile, Arouna Kone has shown a willingness to take the game to the opposition this season – he ranks first for total dribbles this season with seven.