Manchester United visit Portsmouth this weekend seeking to build on the win over Everton last Saturday. Sir Alex Ferguson, who will sit in the stands for the match following his FA-inspired touch-line ban, will face new Pompey manager Avram Grant. But Ferguson may have to do without a half-dozen key players as his injury list refuses to clear up.
Rated doubtful for the match are Dimitar Berbatov and Edwin van der Sar with knee complaints, Jonny Evans and John O’Shea who have a troublesome thighs, Fabio da Silva with a stiff groin and Rio Ferdinand who is out, as usual, with a sore back. Long term absentee Owen Hargreaves is unlikely to play until this side of Christmas.
The list means that Ferguson is likely to pair Nemanja Vidic and Wes Brown in central defence, whom the Scot was keen to praise this week.
“I think most people recognise that [Brown is] a natural defender, and you’ve got to also pay tribute to the lad that he keeps coming back from the serious injuries he’s had over his career,” Ferguson said at his Friday press conference.
“He’s had two cruciates, a broken ankle, calf injuries … last season he had a very staggered season in terms of interruptions into his consistency.
“But the previous season he was our most consistent defender, in the year when we won the cup [Champions League] in Moscow.
“Now he’s fit again and is looking fantastic. He gets better all the time.
“Players always need a run of games to get the consistency in the timing and tempo of their game correct. We’re seeing that at the moment, so long may it continue.”
Patrice Evra, assured of a place at left-back, will start but the manager must choose between Rafael da Silva and Gary Neville on the right side of defence. The Brazilian teenager looked uncertain at left-back against Besiktas in midweek but is likely to play as Ferguson seeks to attack a belleagered Portsmouth defence that is without England goalkeeper David James.
Meanwhile, should van der Sar fail to recover Ferguson could stand by Ben Foster in the United goal. The ‘keeper, beaten by a deflected effort on Wednesday night, could do with a confidence boost after a tough few months.
Portsmouth, who overlooked Sir Alex’ son Darren for the vacant manager’s post this week, lie bottom of the Premier League after a shocking series of results. The club’s fate is hardly suprising given the South coast outfit’s player sales over the past year.
In fact, while sacking Hart was almost inevitable, it was the very definition of papering over the cracks. That United will face a Portsmouth side almost unrecognisable from that which took to the field under Harry Redknapp’s stewardship is far more instructive.
The club’s fate now lies in Avram Grant’s hands. Yet in the former Chelsea manager, Portsmouth has chosen not only the least charismatic coach in the Premier League but a man who has achieved close to nothing in a career defined by mediocrity. The appointment came as little surprise though. Indeed, Paul Hart’s fate was surely sealed the millisecond Portsmouth push Grant back through Fratton Park’s doors. The hand, no doubt, of Grant’s good friend Pini Zahavi.
Yet Ferguson was quick to defend Grant, whom he beat to the 2008 Champions League.
“Avram is a football man and there is no doubt he will be glad to get back into the game,” Ferguson said this week.
“He has a task on his hands because his team are bottom of the league. But hopefully he can manage it. Portsmouth have some very good players. I have looked at their videos and they may be in a false position.
“But being bottom of the league does create a reaction from owners and management of a club.”
“It doesn’t matter which club it is, when you have a change of ownership there will be a certain amount of disruption. You get new policies coming in, or there might be a new financial outlook. You can see how it can have an effect on the pitch.
“Owners of a club don’t like to see their team at the bottom of the league. That is the danger position.
“If you are third or fourth bottom you think everything will be OK but when you see your team going bottom it creates a dread about where they are going to be next season.”
Kind words. Bu three points on Saturday and United will contribute heavily to Portsmouth inevitable relegation. The club, which in 2008 won the FA Cup under Redknapp’s stewardship, overspent heavily on meagre revenues in recent seasons and is paying the price.
Not the first club to ‘chase the dream’ and come out the wrong side of a debt mountain.