Midfielder Tom Cleverley returns to Sir Alex Ferguson’s starting squad for Sunday’s clash with West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford. The 22-year-old has missed most of the campaign with an injury to his left ankle, although the latest knock, which kept the midfielder out of matches against Norwich City, Tottenham Hotspur and Athletic Bilbao, was to the right. But Cleverley’s return for the clash with Roy Hodgson’s Midlanders offers Ferguson additional options as Manchester United looks to bounce back from European defeat on Thursday night.
The 3-2 home loss to Athletic came amid the backdrop of some truly calamitous defending – a scenario that Ferguson knows his side must not repeat against in-form West Brom at Old Trafford. Hodgson’s side has won three on the spin, including a victory over Chelsea last weekend, and a thumping 5-1 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Indeed, Ferguson must balance the need to select a strong side against Athletic in Bilbao on Thursday, if United is to progress in the Europa League, with the challenge of maintaining the domestic pursuit of Manchester City.
“We’ve got to recover from the Bilbao defeat,” said the United manager.
“At this moment we are finding it difficult to balance the two together, playing Thursday-Sunday. We are finding it more difficult than we thought. We are finding it more difficult than playing Wednesday-Saturday in the Champions League. We don’t know why it is, but it seems that way. We are not used to it, obviously, and to marry the two together we need a big squad of players.
“It definitely looks like the title is a two-horse race and I don’t think either of us is going to drop a lot of points, but points will be dropped and if we were to drop points it would be crucial – for either team.
“The players know the challenge is there and we have a great opportunity to kick on after the great result at Spurs and hopefully we’ll manage to do that.”
Cleverley is unlikely to start, with Paul Scholes set to return alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield, but Ferguson will be delighted with the youngster’s latest comeback. Cleverley started the season brightly before injury struck in September. Should Anderson suffer no ill reaction to half an hour against Athletic on Thursday, the Brazilian could also make the bench.
Meanwhile, in attack Danny Welbeck is likely to come back into Ferguson’s side for Javier Hernández, with the Mexican starting the defeat to Athletic. Most surprisingly,
French youngster Paul Pogba is set to return to Ferguson’s squad after being left out in recent weeks – it will fuel new speculation that the 18-year-old has signed a contract with the club, despite strong rumours he had agreed a summer move to Juventus.
“I think Tom will be involved. Obviously the problem when you have players out for such a long time is when you can get them back into the fray. For instance, Ando played for half an hour and it was a good half-hour for him as he’d not played for two months. We’ll have to look at that issue. I imagine he’ll be doubtful for Sunday.
“I’ll make one or two changes. Scholes is available and so are Nani and Rio Ferdinand to get the freshness back in. I will maybe gamble with a couple on Sunday for Thursday’s game. West Brom are in a bit of form. But we’re at home and we’re expected to win our games at home and hopefully we can put [Thursday's] result behind us.”
Defeat to Athletic was the most calamitous of an awful European season for United. In five home matches United has won just once, and that came against Romainian side Oţelul Galaţi. Poor form at home has cost United points domestically too, with Blackburn Rovers and City beating the Reds at Old Trafford already this season.
This points to a difficult fixture for Ferguson’s side, with West Brom excelling on the road this season – only City and United has a better away record than the Midlands outfit in the current campaign.
Meanwhile, Carrick, who has been in superb form since returning to the side in November, says that United must now focus if the Reds’ are to claim a 20th domestic title in May.
“Just because we have come through a tough two months doesn’t mean we will sail through the next two nicely,” Carrick told Sky Sports.
“We are not getting carried away and we are not taking anything for granted. We know how quickly it can come back and bite us. Since I have been here, we have always been up against someone, whether that is two teams or three. With it being City and so local, it does develop into something different. At the same time it is about winning games and focusing on ourselves.”
The visitors arrive in fine form and captain Chris Brunt could make a first start for the Baggies in two months after recovering from a broken foot. Billy Jones should be fit to start at right-back, but Jerome Thomas is struggling with a hamstring injury and is set to miss out.
Manager Hodgson praised his side for winning three in a row, but has challenged the Midlanders to come up with a ‘coming of age’ result in Manchester. As Ajax, Athletic, Blackburn and City have found out this season, Old Trafford is no longer the fortress it once was.
“We all understand how difficult three straight wins in the Barclays Premier League is,” said the former Liverpool manager.
“When you get that situation you really have to enjoy it and be very happy about it – but at the same time make sure it doesn’t lead to any complacency. There is no good winning three in a row if you then lose three in a row. We need to try and keep those points coming in.
“It’s going to be a very tough ask at Old Trafford, as it is for any club going there. But at least we go there with some wind in our sails. If you can back a good result up with another very good result against a top team, it would be a sort of coming of age result for us.”
Defeat is a result United supporters, players and managers cannot countenance. With just 11 fixtures remaining in the Premier League, and United two points adrift of City in the title race, there is now little room for error. History is on United’s side though – West Brom has never beaten the Reds in the Premier League, and not secured a victory over Manchester’s finest since a 2-0 home win in March 1984.
Ferguson and players will know this is no time to change that pattern of results.
Manchester United versus West Bromwich Albion, Premier League, Old Trafford, 11 March 2012, 2pm.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Rafael, Fabio, Smalling, Giggs, Park, Anderson, Cleverley, Pogba, Hernández, Berbatov, Owen.
West Brom (4-5-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Odemwingie, Andrews, Mulumbu, Morrison, Brunt; Fortune. Subs from: Reid, Tamas, Long, Fulop, Shorey, Dorrans, Long, Cox
West Brom: LDLWWW
- Manchester United kept to within two points of league leaders Manchester City with a 3-1 victory over Tottenham Hotpsur last weekend – Wayne Rooney’s 18th goal of the season and two from Ashley Young secured the points;
- Young’s goals took his total for the season to four in the Premier League goals from 34 shots at goal with 71 per cent on target. His brace against Spurs catapulted the 26-year-old back into the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index top 100;
- Meanwhile, Rooney’s goals have come from 95 shots at goal with 65 per cent on target;
- Once again Michael Carrick covered the most ground for United, with 6.02 miles – it was the sixth time in a row the Geordie has covered the most ground for the Reds;
- United’s evergreen midfielder Paul Scholes has not looked out of place since returning to the Premier League in January, and has completed 208 passes in his opponent’s half so far this season, averaging one every 2 minutes 15 seconds. Scholes is the second most prolific passer of the ball in the Premier League discounting those who have played fewer than 100 passes this season;
- Visitors West Brom sealed the end of Andre Villas Boas’ reign at Chelsea with a 1-0 victory at the Hawthorns last weekend;
- Gareth McAuley’s late goal earned the Baggies three points, lifted Roy Hodgson’s side to ninth place in the Premier League;
- McAukley’s goal was his second in the Premier League this season, coming from an efficient eight shots at goal;
- Youssuf Mulumbu covered the most ground for West Brom in that game with 6.32 miles.Officials
Referee: Lee Probert (South Gloucestershire)
Assistants: D Richardson, W Smallwood
Fourth Official: C Foy