Tom Cleverley returns to the Manchester United squad as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side takes on Liverpool for the third time this season. United face the Merseysiders just a fortnight after losing in an FA Cup fourth round tie at Anfield, but midfielder Cleverley’s return provides a timely boost in United’s pursuit of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table. Cleverley has not featured since October, and not completed a match since the Reds beat Arsenal 8-2 in August, but is likely to make the bench for the Saturday lunchtime tie at Old Trafford.
England international Cleverley adds additional midfield creativity to a United side that came back from three goals down at Stamford Bridge last weekend, but slipped two points behind City in the title race. Ferguson will also be able to call upon defender Chris Smalling, but Phil Jones is unlikely to feature until next week’s Europa League fixture against Ajax.
But United appears to have come through one of the worst injury crisis during Ferguson’s 25 year tenure at Old Trafford, with up to 11 players missing at any one time through the autumn and winter. Indeed, winger Nani remains on the sidelines, while the long-term injured, including Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić will not feature.
“Tom’s training well. We were disappointed the Chelsea Reserves game was called off on Monday,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“The plan was for him to stay over with us [after last Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge] and play in the game on the Monday. That was called off. But he’s trained very well and he’ll be involved tomorrow.
“There’s not much change on the injury front for us. I think Smalling could be available, but all the rest is as it was last Sunday. Phil Jones got a knock against Manchester City, which he never quite recovered from. He’ll be fit for next week. He’ll be fit for the Ajax game.”
If Cleverley’s return does not add enough spice to the fixture, then Luis Suárez’ first appearance at Old Trafford since completing an eight match ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra certainly does. With the United captain suffering consistent abuse at Anfield a fortnight ago, the Uruguayan striker is likely to receive a typically warm Manchester welcome.
However, Sir Alex believes that the debate about the potential handshake between Evra and Suárez is irrelevant, although the media is likely to focus on the moment during the pre-match rituals. Instead, Ferguson chose to concentrate on the lax defending that cost his side three goals at Stamford Bridge and defeat against Liverpool in the cup.
“I think our performance levels in the last few weeks have been good, but we’re losing goals in important games and that’s a bit of a concern,” the 70-year-old manager added.
“Last week, Juan Mata’s goal was a fantastic strike – we couldn’t do a thing about that – but an own goal and a deflected goal… we should do better. We lost two soft goals against Liverpool in the FA Cup and that shouldn’t be happening at our club. We expect a hard game tomorrow but I’m just looking for the sort of performance we’ve been showing recently. That should help us.”
Injuries to each of Ferguson’s back four, save for Evra, has certainly not helped. Indeed, the French defender’s poor form in recent matches can, in part, be attributed to potential burn-out – Evra has featured in more games than any other United player this season. Evra’s ongoing form has United fans debating the Frenchman’s future despite the manager’s persistent faith.
One man for whom there is little debate is Ryan Giggs, with the 38-year-old midfielder signing a one year contract extension on Friday. The Welshman will be just months short of his 40th birthday by the time the new deal expires in summer 2013. And Giggs will compete with another veteran, Paul Scholes, for a place in United’s starting 11 along with Michael Carrick.
Elsewhere, Ferguson will pick between Smalling and in-form Rafael da Silva at right-back, while Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck are competing for a place in attack. Ashley Young could retain his place despite the below par performance at Stamford Bridge last weekend.
“It is brilliant for him, the club and the fans that somebody of his calibre is going to continue at his age,” said Young of Giggs’ new deal.
“He has been brilliant throughout the years that he has played and is somebody that I admire and look up to. Obviously players like Giggs and Scholes have experience from their many years at the club and when they talk, you listen because they have been there and done it. They have won so many titles and medals and have achieved so much in their careers. If I can achieve part of that I’ll be thrilled. I’d say I’m an experienced player at 26 but I still listen to the seniors and want to improve.”
Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish must decide whether to include Suárez in his starting side. The striker came off the bench during Liverpool’s draw with Tottenham Hotspur on Monday. However, Andy Carroll caused goalkeeper David de Gea significant problems at Anfield, with the young Spaniard struggling to cope with Liverpool’s direct, physical, approach. Jose Enrique could play missing the scoreless draw with Spurs though injury.
United has won six of the last seven league meetings between the sides at Old Trafford – the exception was Liverpool’s 4-1 win in March 2009. And the Reds home form is nothing like last season’s, with Ferguson’s side dropping eight points at Old Trafford already. By the same stage last year, United had dropped just two points.
Ferguson knows that there is little room for manoeuver, especially with City facing a comfortable looking run of fixtures before ‘squeaky bum time’ kicks in during the spring!
Manchester United versus Liverpool, Premier League, Old Trafford, 11 February 2012, 12.45pm.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Kuszazck, Smalling, Fryers, Cleverley, Cole, Giggs, Park, Pogba, Welbeck, Berbatov.
Liverpool (4-5-1): Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Kuyt, Gerrard, Spearing, Adam, Downing; Suárez. Subs from: Doni, Aurelio, Coates, Carragher, Henderson, Carroll, Bellamy.
- United provided one of the games of the season against Chelsea on Sunday, coming back from 3-0 down to secure a 3-3 draw and stay in the title race;
- Michael Carrick covered the most ground in that game for the third Premier League game in a row, with 6.68 miles;
- Patrice Evra has covered the most ground in total this season with 131.2 miles;
- Two penalties from Wayne Rooney and a header from Javier Hernández brought United back into the game. Rooney’s goals were his 14th and 15th of the season, and have come from 87 shots at goal with 64 per cent on target;
- David De Gea has been heavily criticised this season, but the young goalkeeper pulled off two sensational saves to keep United in the game against Chelsea. The Spaniard has made 97 saves this season, averaging 6.5 per game. That’s the fourth highest average in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Meanwhile, Liverpool welcomed back Luis Suárez against Spurs on Monday, but the Uruguay striker could not break the deadlock as Liverpool were held to a scoreless draw;
- Charlie Adam covered the most ground for Liverpool against Spurs with 6.83 miles, and has covered 141.3 miles in total this season for Liverpool (the most of any Liverpool player);
- Andy Carroll has been credited with improved form in Suárez’s absence. The former Newcastle United striker has averaged 4.8 miles in each of his Premier League games without the Uruguayan – his average across the season is just 3.8 miles per game;
- Suárez has made 76 efforts at goal this season with 53 per cent on target, while Carroll has had 50 with exactly half on target;
- Suárez has averaged a shot at goal every 22 minutes, while Carroll has had an effort every 28 minutes this season.
Referee: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire)
Assistants: S Bennett, A Garratt
Fourth Official: A Taylor