Manchester United supporters have become accustomed to the annual defensive injury crisis in recent seasons, with Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, and the da Silva brothers each on the sidelines for long periods. This season’s incarnation – hardly a surprise to anybody perusing the injury records of Sir Alex Ferguson’s defenders – has come a little earlier than normal, with the Scot’s first choice back-four absent for Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Old Trafford on Monday night.
Joining Ferdinand and Vidic on the sidelines is and Rafael da Silva, while Patrice Evra may face the Londoners depending on his recovery from a minor knee injury suffered on international duty. It is hardly ideal preparation for United’s opening home match of the new season but with nearly £50 million of youthful defensive talent still at Ferguson’s disposal injuries with open the door for Phil Jones’ first competitive start.
The 19-year-old summer recruit from Blackburn Rovers is likely to line-up alongside Chris Smalling or Jonny Evans in central defence, with Fábio vying for a spot at right-back.
Ferguson’s faith in Jones is nothing new though, with the 69-year-old United manager having tried to sign the teenager last January. The England Under-21 international’s composure and leadership skills, says the Scot, marks the player out as one United “couldn’t miss” in this summer’s transfer market.
“When he was playing against us in the 7-1 game, after the fifth goal he was running out and giving everyone around him stick and he was only 18 then. I was very impressed,” admitted Ferguson.
“After that I tried to get him last January. We put an inquiry in but Blackburn wouldn’t sell him at that time. He was just one that we couldn’t miss. He’s definitely got all the parts to his game, there is no doubt about that. He has got the desire to play and he’s a good trainer, with a great determination about him.”
Despite the manager’s confidence United is likely to field a hugely inexperienced defence on Monday night. Jones, Smalling and Evans are likely to be joined by Fabio da Silva. The five that finished United’s 2-1 win against West Bromwich Albion last Sunday had an average age of just 20 years and 193 days.
It is hardly ideal for under-pressure 20-year-old goalkeeper David de Gea, who has mistakes in successive games since an £18 million transfer from Atlético de Madrid this summer. Despite the media pressure being heaped on the youngster Ferguson says he hasn’t discussed the issue de Gea in the past week.
“He coped with the crosses into the box at West Brom with no problem – he just didn’t get any protection,” added Ferguson.
“You saw the challenges – an elbow in the face and a boy went under him and he didn’t get the free-kick. It’s disappointing when you don’t get the protection, but he’s at home against Spurs on Monday and it won’t be a problem. It’s just away from home where he might get subjected to that.
“David will go through the same programme of core work as the rest of the players do when they come here. [Edwin] Van der Sar was a tall, skinny kid when he won the European Cup in 1995. He was the same – and don’t forget David is only 20. Schmeichel had a baptism of fire, too. He went to Wimbledon in his first couple of games with us and screamed like a pig. He got no protection. He had Vinnie Jones, Alan Cork and John Fashanu all piling on top of him and battering lumps out of him.
“David will be fine. I have no problems with him, none at all. We have never mentioned the criticism this week that David got after the West Brom game. He’s fine, he’s done his training – there’s no problem.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson will choose between Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick in central midfield. Although youngster Cleverley performed admirably during the Community Shield and away victory at West Brom the senior man is now injury free and ready to face his former club. Darren Fletcher completed a reserve match in midweek but is likely to be a fortnight away from a first team return, as is winger Antonia Valencia.
The Scot also faces a selection dilemma up front, with Danny Welbeck and Dimitar Berbatov vying for a starting spot against Spurs. Welbeck began fixtures with both Manchester City in the Community Shield and last weekend but the Bulgarian replaced him each time.
There is, of course, no doubt about Rooney who has begun the campaign in fine form. Free from controversy surrounding his private life or contractual situation, the 25-year-old former Evertonian is playing in the liberated fashion with which he closed last season
“He’s been flying in pre-season,” said Ferguson.
“His fitness is terrific, he has the same energy all the time, he is a restless player on the pitch, he can never stand still. He is a tremendous asset to our squad. It’s interesting to see how he is combining with [Danny] Welbeck at the moment. Both have done very well together.
“I have Berbatov who did very well in pre-season, he played really well. When Chicharito returns then I’ve a selection problem to work out the best combination. For me, Chicharito has goals written all over him, so it’s not a bad position to be in.”
Meanwhile, Harry Redknapp’s side arrived in Manchester fresh from hammering Hearts at Tyncastle during the week. Spurs’ 5-0 victory came despite the Londoners having yet to start the domestic season after the club’s opening Premier League fixture was called off due to the riots that swept north London a fortnight ago.
Redknapp should be able to call on Luka Modrić even though the Croatian missed the win at Hearts with a groin strain. However striker Peter Crouch, Ledley King, William Gallas, Sandro, Steven Pienaar and Alan Hutton are all doubtful for the match.
And star midfielder Gareth Bale says that the lack of experience in United’s back five is an advantage Spurs must take if the Londoners are to win at Old Trafford for the first time since 1989. Indeed, ‘keeper de Gea wasn’t born until 1990, underlining both United’s youth and the visitors poor record in Manchester.
“If any keeper’s having a bad time, you’re going to test them and it’s going to be no different,” bale told the Mirror.
“We’re going to go to Old Trafford and give our all and test their whole team. It’s obviously going to be nerve-racking for him to go to United and be in the first team, but he showed at Atlético Madrid and with Spain that he’s a world class keeper.”
Yet, despite the focus on United’s 20-year-old stopper, it is arguably Jones that is the key man should he start. For a player so young, a sense of responsibility already rests on the defender’s shoulders; few doubt Jones’ ability to see it through.
Manchester United versus Tottenham Hotspur, Premier League, Old Trafford, Monday 22 August, 8pm.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Fábio, Smalling, Jones, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Anderson, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Evans, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Diouf, Owen, Berbatov, Pogba.
Spurs (4-4-1-1): Gomes; Walker, Dawson, Kaboul, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Modric, Huddlestone, Bale; Van der Vaart; Defoe. Subs from: Cudicini, Kranjcar, Livermore, Friedel, Bassong, Corluka, Townsend, Pavlyuchenko.
Referee: Lee Probert (South Gloucestershire)