Ryan Giggs returns to the Manchester United squad as Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit seeks a four point Premier League lead. With Arsenal in Carling Cup action, Ferguson’s outfit could extend its advantage at Wigan Athletic on Saturday. Giggs returns along with Michael Owen for the fixture, which United won 5-0 last season. However, the good news is tempered by confirmation that defender Rio Ferdinand will miss games against both Wigan this weekend and Chelsea on Tuesday night.
Ferdinand’s absence, along with Jonny Evans, means Chris Smalling will continue in the heart of United’s defence. The 20-year-old former Fulham defender earned deserved praise for his performance against Marseille in the Champions League. Indeed, Smalling will experience an accelerated learning curve over the next week, with two key domestic fixtures.
However, Ferguson will be without Ji-sung Park, Anderson and Antonio Valencia for the short trip across Lancashire, although the latter could be back in March after the leg-break he suffered in September.
“Nothing much has changed on the injury front,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“We’re trying to get Ryan [Giggs] fit for the Wigan game, and Michael Owen is back training and could be available. Rio and Jonny Evans should both be back for Liverpool next weekend. Ji-sung Park is still two weeks away. Anderson will probably be back in three weeks, he’s back in Portugal now and we’ll have to see how he progresses.
“Antonio is doing well in training but it’s difficult to assess when he’ll be back. We have to make a decision on when to play him in terms of his own confidence after being out for so long. He could be back in two weeks hopefully.”
Ferguson is likely to keep both top scorer Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney in the side, although neither stood out at Marseille during the week. The Scot must decide whether to retain the 4-5-1 system that successfully stifled the French champions on Wednesday night or deploy Rooney in a more central role.
Certainly, the 69-year-old will insist his team create more chances that in Stade Velodrome, with United desperate for the points in the title race. Ferguson’s outfit leads Arsenal by a single point heading in the weekend programme. Indeed, the Scot things that Arsène Wenger’s side is the only realistic challengers this season, with Manchester City and Chelsea falling away in recent weeks.
This despite John Terry’s bizzare assertion that United is feeling the pressure heading into next Tuesday’s tie with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Should United win on Saturday, Ferguson’s side will pull 12 points clear of last season’s champions.
“Arsenal or ourselves will win it. You come towards the end and there are always two teams who break away. That’s the way it’s looking at the moment,” added Ferguson
“But it won’t be easy [for Chelsea] to come back from that kind of points deficit. Maybe 82 points will win the league. We think we can gather that total from the games we’ve got. You don’t care where you get them.”
Ferguson may recall Paul Scholes ahead of Darron Gibson, who did little to impress in France, although key fixtures coming up against Chelsea and Liverpool take precedence. However, the United manager conceded all of his players want to play, with the run-in now beginning in earnest.
United faces five key fixtures against Wigan, Chelsea, Liverpool, Marseille and a potential cup-tie with Arsenal over the next fortnight.
“My experience is that players want to play in all the games now, that is the problem,” Ferguson added.
“It is a nightmare picking teams at this stage of the season because you are leaving good players out of some very big games. “This season I am helped a little bit because I have two or three injuries at the moment, so my options are condensed. All the players who are going to be playing all the time are delighted at that.”
Meanwhile, Roberto Martinez’ relegation threatened team could face United without Emmerson Boyce, Callum McManaman and on-loan Tom Cleverley. Boyce has a hamstring problem, McManaman a gashed leg and Cleverley is ineligible to play against his parent club.
It’s a foreboding problem for Martinez, whose side has lost all 12 encounters with United. The Reds have averaged three goals a game in those fixtures and conceded just four times. And with Wigan set to face four of the Premier League’s top five in the coming weeks, the drop is a realistic outcome for the Lancashire club this season.
Still, Ferguson refused to concede that United will win the tie easily – and there is genuine concern in the Old Trafford camp at the state of the relaid DW pitch.
“It’s be a difficult game, Wigan are a team who play fantastic football, but this time of season they’re all difficult,” concluded Ferguson.
“It’s important that we keep our momentum going because the team who is most consistent will win the league.”
In that United has been a model of regularity, losing just once in the Premier League this season. Ferguson’s outfit has also performed with consistent mediocrity away from the safety of Old Trafford. If the Reds are to complete a 19th domestic title in May that will have to change.
Wigan – 451 – Al Habsi; Gohouri, Gary Caldwell, Alcaraz, Figueroa; N’Zogbia, Watson, McCarthy, Diame, Moses; Rodallega. Subs from: Pollitt, Di Santo, Steven Caldwell, Gomez, Stam, McArthur, Thomas, McManaman.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Brown, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, O’Shea, Obertan, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King, Carrick.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistant referees: Mick McDonough & Andy Newbold
Fourth official: Anthony Taylor
Wigan – LDDWDL
United – WWLWWD