Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will once again seek to close the gap at the head of the Premier League, with the Reds facing a daunting trip to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday. Manchester City side pulled five points ahead after beating Bolton Wanderers at home on Saturday, ensuring that Ferguson’s men travel south knowing a result is essential at White Hart Lane.
The omens bode well though, with United having won at the Lane seven times in the past decade, and Harry Redknapp’s side reeling from the thumping handed out by Arsenal last weekend. Indeed, with Ferguson welcoming back Wayne Rooney to the fold following a fortnight’s absence, United arrive in north London in fine spirits and reasonable health.
Despite Tottenham’s surge up the Premier League table under Redknapp’s management the side’s fortunes have suffered in recent weeks. Dropped points against Arsenal, Liverpool and City have eliminated Tottenham from the title reckoning, even if qualification for the Champions League is likely. Whether Spurs’ stuttering form is related to manager Redknapp’s trial for tax evasion, and subsequent status as favourite to take over the England job, is a valid question.
Yet, Ferguson still counts the trip to White Hart Lane as United’s “hardest” away game in the remaining dozen Premier League fixtures. With United also travelling to face City at Eastlands on 30 April, the not-so-subtle dig will have been heard in east Manchester.
“Tottenham is always a tremendous highlight for us. It’s always a tremendous game given the history of both clubs,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“It’s a very important game for us. Look at the rest of the season. You can certainly say we’re building up to what could turn out to be a title decider with Manchester City. This is our hardest away game, no doubt. Hopefully we can navigate it.
“Harry Redknapp’s added lot of players and changed things around. Kyle Walker is a tremendous full back. He has great pace going forward and there’s pace on the other side from Gareth Bale, while Rafael van der Vaart has cleverness off the front. As for Luca Modric, everyone realises what a tremendous player he is. So it’s a team full of talent and they’re having a great season.”
However, Ferguson has some tricky selection decisions to navigate, with many of his squad having played internationals during the week. While Rooney is a certain starter, both Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández appeared for their countries.
Meanwhile, Tom Cleverley definitely misses out through injury and Goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard is still some way from being available despite reports to the contrary during the week. Chris Smalling, who took a blow to the head during England’s loss to Holland, travelled but may not be risked. Winger Antonio Valencia is in the match party.
“Chicharito’s match in Miami kicked off at 1am our time on Thursday morning so we’ll have to see what he’s like when he gets back,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“He’s got another day [to recover] on Saturday, which is good news but he will still have played four games in 10 days so it’s quite a task for the lad. Danny Welbeck played almost the full game for England too, Nani played 80 minutes for Portugal and Ashley Young had a full game. Jonny Evans played for Northern Ireland so there were quite a few in action on Wednesday but we have the extra day’s recovery as we’re playing on Sunday so that helps us.
However, Ferguson may be able to call on Michael Owen, who is back in full training. The 32-year-old striker has played just four games this season, scoring three goals in the Carling Cup. Injury has once again restricted the former England international’s role at United; a pattern familiar to fans of the striker’s many previous clubs. Sir Alex is having none of it, blaming Owen’s injury record on bad luck.
“Michael has had very good preparation,” added Sir Alex of the striker who has scored just five Premier League goals in three seasons with United.
“He’s done a lot of work with the physios and is ready to join us. It’s good news. I hope he has a bit of luck. He needs that as he’s not had a lot. When he has an injury it always seems to be a long one. Hopefully he’ll be back for the rest of the season, which will help us.”
Meanwhile, Tottenham manager Redknapp should be able to call on key players Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart, Kyle Walker and Ledley King after the quartet picked up injuries in the heavy defeat to Arsenal. It is a huge boost to Spurs, with the side having picked up only eight from a possible 18 points through a difficult run of fixtures. The north London side faces Chelsea next week, before nine winnable games conclude the domestic season.
However, new England captain Scott Parker is missing after being sent off in the 5-2 defeat to Arsenal last weekend.
It should make for an open encounter, with both sides desperate for the win. Indeed, former Spurs midfielder Michael Carrick, who has excelled through the winter, says that United’s last-minute win over Norwich City last weekend has lifted the team ahead of the trip south, with the team also taking confidence from a strong record at the Lane in recent years.
“It is always a good game when we go to Tottenham; it is two teams that play good football and try to play the right way,” admitted Carrick, who played over 60 games for the Londoners.
“Over the years, there have been some classic games. We have a decent record down there. It doesn’t count for much on Sunday but, over the years, we have done quite well. At this time of the season, it starts getting serious. Wins and draws can make a huge difference. You saw last week how we responded and won the game and what it meant to everyone. We will be looking to do the same again.”
With anything less than a win handing the title initiative to City, Carrick understands as well as any the need for professionalism at White Hart Lane. Accusations of complacency, made so loudly after United’s lacklustre performance at Carrow Road last weekend, must not be heard again come Sunday evening.
Yet, the hosts have managed just six draws from the last 25 meetings with United since the Londoners last win in 2001. This is no time to change that record.
Tottenham Hotspur versus Manchester United, Premier League, White Hart Lane, 4 March 2012, 4pm.
Tottenham (4-4-2): Friedel; Walker, Dawson, King, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Modric, Sandro, Bale; van der Vaart; Adebayor. Subs from: Cudicini, Rose, Kaboul, Kranjcar, Nelsen, Livermore, Khumalo, Luongo, Dawkins, Defoe, Saha.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Rafael, Fabio, Fryers, Smalling, Giggs, Park, Pogba, Valencia, Hernández, Berbatov, Owen.
Referee: Martin Atkinson (Bradford)
Assistants: C Breakspear, M Mullarkey
Fourth Official: A Marriner