Sir Alex Ferguson reports no fresh injury concerns ahead of Manchester United’s fixture with Chelsea to Old Trafford this Sunday, in a match billed both as a clash of generations and a marker for the new season. Now in his 26th year at Old Trafford, 69-year-old Ferguson stands in marked contrast to his callow opposite number, André Villas-Boas, the 33-year-old Portuguese who won the treble with Porto last season. Yet, each is desperate to gain early ground in the Premier League title race.
Aside from from the clash of personalities the fixture will serve as a barometer for Chelsea’s challenge this season. In contrast to swashbuckling United performances in the Premier League, Chelsea’s pedestrian start – despite four wins in five – has brought both media and internal criticism, with striker Fernando Torres complaining of his team-mates’ sedentary pace. Hardly surprising given the ageing nature of Chelsea’s squad and the frustration that the 27-year-old Torres must feel. One goal in 22 for his new club gives the Spaniard little ammunition for criticism though.
But, says Ferguson, despite the ageing legs and in-fighting at the west London outfit, Chelsea will pose a significant threat to The Reds’ title ambitions this season. Indeed, Chelsea is the only side to boast a positive head-to-head record against United in the Premier League era.
“It will be a fantastic game,” Ferguson told reporters on Friday.
“The games with Chelsea over the last seven years have been very close affairs. There’s usually only one goal in it and I think it will be tight again on Sunday. They’re a team with great experience and they’ll pose a challenge to us. Chelsea will be there at the end of the season. There’s no doubt about that.”
With United having beaten Chelsea three times last season the Reds start as favourites at Old Trafford but it is the contrast with the Premier League’s youngest manager that fascinates. Indeed, Ferguson drew parallels with his own start at United, having been successful at a young age in Scotland. The difference, of course, being that the young Ferguson had more than a decade in management before signing on at Old Trafford.
“It’s similar to when I came from Aberdeen, I’d achieved something,” added Ferguson, who won the European Cup Winners’ Cup with The Scottish club and broke the Auld Firm duopoly.
“André Villas-Boas won the Double last year so that’s a help. That stands him in good stead in terms of the start of his tenure at Chelsea. After that, the impression that the players get from him in terms of his knowledge of the game and man-management skills, that’s all in the future. The new coach has started very well. It’s a hard challenge at his age but he’s acquitted himself very well and his team have responded, which is what you hope for as a new manager at a club.”
Ferguson will be able to call on an almost fully fit squad for the tie, save for injured quartet Rafael da Silva, Nemanja Vidic, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley. The latter pair is a significant loss, with the youngsters having started the season in such exhilarating fashion. Cleverley is likely to miss the next three weeks but Welbeck is well ahead of schedule and has begun training with the first team once again. The injuries should mean both Javer Hernández and Michael Carrick start at Old Trafford on Sunday.
“We came through the Benfica game without any injuries,” added Sir Alex.
“We have a full squad for Sunday. They’re all giving me headaches. Darren Fletcher, Ji-sung Park, Antonio Valencia, they’ve not been involved because the team have been playing so well. I’ve decided not to tinker with that. But now we come to the time of the season where we need our squad – we’ve got European games, Carling Cup etc. Danny Welbeck’s back training now. He could maybe be ready for the following week [at Stoke].”
In Cleverley’s stead the oft-criticised Carrick will start his first Premier League game of the season. The 30-year-old Geordie is likely to be paired with a rejuvenated Anderson, who is enjoying his best start to a campaign after four years at Old Trafford.
The creative burden, from central areas at least, is again likely to fall on Rooney, who will resume his partnership with Hernández at Old Trafford after the Mexican sat out United’s bore draw with Benfica on Wednesday night. Rooney’s stunning early season form has brought 10 goals in six games for club and country, including successive hat-tricks. Should the England forward score twice against Chelsea he will become the first player to reach double figures after five games of a Premier League season.
Rooney bills the tie with Chelsea as United’s biggest test of the season to date, after the Reds conjured up comfortable wins against Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford.
“Obviously Arsenal are always difficult but with the injuries they had when they came to Old Trafford we were the favourites to win that one,” the striker told ManUtd.com
“The Chelsea game’s going to be difficult and we need to be at our best. They’ve got a few new players – I saw Daniel Sturridge started the last game and Juan Mata played as well. I’m sure they’ll have a few new ideas to go along with the new signings they have, but I’ sure we’ll be able to cope with that. This is going to be another big game and if we can win we’ll go five points clear of Chelsea and keep our winning run going at the start of the season.”
Meanwhile, Villas-Boas will be without striker Didier Drogba, who is still on the sidelines following an early season concussion. It is unlikely to save Torres’ place in the side with Nicolas Anelka set to start. Influential midfielder Michael Essien is unlikely to return before February with another serious knee injury.
Yet, Villas-Boas has attempted to play down the fixture’s importance in the season, despite the five point advantage that victory for United will bring.
“Our importance in the game is minimal. It’s for the players to exploit their talents and enjoy their game,” said the 33-year-old.
“We face Man United perhaps in their most tremendous moment of motivation and flair and style and a team that has made its impact at the beginning of the Premiership, different from last year. It provokes a good challenge and I think motivation will be the key factor in the game and hopefully (we can) come back from Old Trafford with a win.”
Chelsea has won five times at Old Trafford in the Premier League era, more often than any other team. Few expect the Londoners to repeat the feat on Sunday.
Manchester United versus Chelsea, Premier League, Old Trafford, 4pm, 18 September 2011.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Evans, Giggs, Evans, Fletcher, Pogba, Park, Diouf, Owen, Berbatov.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Bosingwa, Luiz, Alex, Cole; Ramires, Meireles, Lampard; Mata, Anelka, Sturridge. Subs from: Hilario, Ferreira, Malouda, McEachran, Mikel, Kalou, Torres, Romeu
Referee: Phil Dowd (Slovenia)