Manchester United’s performances this Christmas may be patchy, but the same cannot be said for manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The great Scot started the week fearing for Robin van Persie’s life and ended it by deriding Newcastle United as that “wee club from the north east”. It has been truly spectacular stuff from a deliciously feisty Ferguson.
But while Sir Alex returned to limelight-hogging form, the manager should be more concerned with United’s propensity to ship soft goals as in-form West Bromwich Albion visit Old Trafford on Saturday. Indeed, with West Brom up to fifth place in the Premier League table, and United likely to rotate for the third game in a week, the fixture has significant ‘banana skin’ potential.
Still, while United shipped four preventable goals in the past week it cost the Reds just the two dropped points at Swansea City last weekend, leaving Ferguson’s side seven clear of rivals Manchester City – a lead so healthy that complacency is now a genuine threat.
Good, then, that Ferguson can call on more resources than against Newcastle United on Wednesday night, with Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa all likely to be involved at some point according the the 70-year-old manager.
“We’re hoping maybe Young will be ready and Daniel Welbeck should be ready,” confirmed Ferguson, who turns 71 on New Year’s Eve.
“He was ill on Tuesday night but I think he should be okay. At least that’s a couple of bodies back fresh for us. We’ll just assess the rest in terms of tiredness. We need to assess players like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs as I think, at their age, [the match versus Newcastle] took a lot out of them.
“Rooney is out for at least another two games. He was a bit better yesterday. We’re going to assess Phil Jones but I don’t think he’ll be ready. Shinji wanted to do a warm-up and training on the pitch and he is getting close. I could maybe put him on the bench tomorrow depending on who is available.”
Ferguson may opt to rest van Persie, with the manager previously insisting that none of his players would feature in all four games over the festive period. Antonio Valencia is long over due a break, while Tom Cleverley should return to the starting line-up. Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa could be in line for a surprise start.
Meanwhile, with Jones not certain to be fit, Ferguson may again call on Chris Smalling at right-back, while Rio Ferdinand could drop to the bench for captain Nemanja Vidić.
That balance has proven to be a challenge for United this season, with the back-four and midfield dynamic causing the Reds plenty of defensive problems. United has shipped 28 Premier League goals this season, which is just five fewer than bottom club Queens Park Rangers. United conceded fewer during title-winning Premier League campaigns in 2007, 2008 and 2009, while Ferguson’s side has managed just four clean sheets all season.
“When you are conceding goals at any level you want to put it to a stop,” admits defender Ferdinand. “This season we have let in far too many goals and we need to change that. We need to make a big effort now to push on. We are in a good position but if we are to maintain where we are, we need to sort ourselves out.”
Ferdinand’s are fine words, of course, but a sentiment that has been echoed season long. And while West Brom have scored just 12 goals away from the Hawthornes this season, few will bet on a United shut-out by 5pm on Saturday. With van Persie potentially on the bench Welbeck and Javier Hernández will need to add to one and 10 goals, respectively, this season.
Meanwhile, Steve Clarke is without injured defenders Jonas Olsson and Goran Popov, and midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu, although George Thorne has returned from a loan spell at Peterborough to ease a heavy injury burden.
The visitors’ injuries and history suggest a home win, with United having never lost to West Brom in the Premier League era. Indeed, the Baggies’ last victory at Old Trafford was a 5-3 triumph almost 35 years ago.
Still, with the Midlanders riding high, there is plenty of confidence in Clarke’s squad ahead of the trip north, not least from former Red, Ben Foster.
“I’ve lost every time I’ve been back there and I got ‘pumped’ 5-0 with Birmingham then we lost 2-0 there last year,” said Foster.
“It’s special to play at Old Trafford, but with the way our team is I don’t think anybody gets too excited about games like that. There are a lot of teams who go there like rabbits in the headlights and get starstruck by it all but I don’t think we’re that sort of team. We will go there, business as usual, looking to get some points.”
Moreover, West Brom’s tally of 33 points is the highest the club has achieved at this stage of a Premier League campaign.
But with the carrot of a huge lead heading into the New Year, Ferguson’s team should gain focus for the weekend’s clash. Whether Ferguson’s back-four can keep a clean sheet is another matter – a good question for the manager’s next press conference, perhaps.
Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 29 December 2012, 3pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Vidić, Büttner; Carrick, Cleverley; Young, Kagawa, Welbeck; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Ferdinand, Evra, Scholes, Valencia, Powell, Giggs, van Persie, Macheda
West Brom (4-5-1): Foster; Tamas, Ridgewell, McAuley, Jones; Morrison, Brunt, Gera, Dorrans, Fortuné; Lukaku. Subs from: Myhill, Rosenberg, Long, Odemwingie, El Ghanassy, Jara, Reid
Referee: Jon Moss
Assistants: A Garratt, C Breakspear
Fourth official: P Dowd
West Brom: LLLDWW
Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, West Brom 0, Draw 2
Overall: United 51, West Brom 40, Draw 29
- van Persie’s goal against Newcastle was his 13th of the Premier League season, having come from 63 efforts at goal with 53.7 per cent on target, and an average of 4.84 shots per goal;
- van Persie’s effort at the other end of the pitch is also important – the Dutchman has made 20 clearances so far this season, more than any other striker in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- With three goals from just five shots at goal Jonny Evans leads the Index for goals to shots ratio;
- While Wayne Rooney may not have scored in United’s recent game against Swansea, his seven shots on target is the joint highest by a player in a single game this season;
- West Brom have enjoyed back to back 2-1 victories over the Christmas fixtures so far, with Chris Brunt, Zoltan Gera and Romelu Lukaku on target;
- Lukaku has scored six in the Premier League this season, getting 81.25 per cent of his 32 efforts at goal on target at an average of 5.33 shots per goal;
- Gera has scored four this season, coming from just 16 chances, and has also completed 233 passes in the opposition half – more than any other West Brom player;
- Chris Brunt scored his first of the season against QPR, although has five assists to his name – has also delivered more crosses than any other West Brom player with 28.