Further injury and illness concerns dominate Sir Alex Ferguson’s planning ahead the trip to Aston Villa this weekend. Manchester United’s six match winning streak came to an end against neighbours City on Wednesday night but the chance to build momentum Saturday lunchtime is hardly helped by injuries to Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva.
The French left-back may feature against Gerard Houlier’s outfit if his sore ankle responds to treatment today, although Rafael will definitely miss out with a dead leg. Meanwhile, ‘flu continues to sweep through the United camp, with up to 12 players having been infected over the past week.
Long-term injury victims Owen Hargreaves, Michael Owen and Antonio Valenica each miss out, although Ryan Giggs could make his long-awaited return if the Welshman suffers no further relapse on a hamstring.
Paul Scholes is suspended under the totting up procedure after collecting five yellow cards this season, although with the midfielder having played 90 minutes against City on Wednesday it is unlikely the 35-year-old would have started anyway. Darron Gibson and Anderson could again miss out with the ‘flu.
Indeed, such is United’s paucity of options in midfield that Ferguson may turn to John O’Shea, whether Evra is fit to feature at left-back or not, or tuck Park Ji-Sung into a more central role.
However, United will again be without Wayne Rooney, who returns from a week’s training at Nike World campus in Portland on Saturday. The 25-year-old has responded well to the SPARQ programme according to United and could feature in upcoming fixtures against Wigan Athletic and Glasgow Rangers.
“Wayne has been doing really well,” assistant manager Phelan told Key 103 radio.
“He has been training really hard, working morning and afternoon. Our people out there who are looking after him have been really pleased with his attitude and approach. All being well he can have a nice easy flight back.
“We will see where he is at on Monday but we think he will have improved immensely.”
In the striker’s stead Ferguson is likely to restore Javier Hernández to the United line-up alongside Dimitar Berbatov and Nani in attack. Despite beginning the season in fine form the Bulgarian has not now scored in nine matches, since hitting a hat-trick against Liverpool in September.
Meanwhile, United continues to chase a rare win on the road this season. Ferguson’s side has just one Premier League victory away from Old Trafford – at Stoke City. With six Premier League draws already, midfielder Darren Fletcher says that United must get back to winning ways at Villa Park this weekend.
“People are talking about us not losing but we have drawn too many, especially away from home,” said Fletcher.
“We have to start winning our away games if we want to push up this league. You can’t afford to draw too many games, otherwise you will get left behind.
“Overall, you would be better winning two games out of three and losing the other one rather than winning one and drawing two.
“That is why we were disappointed on Wednesday. We could have got the win and felt we produced a performance good enough to get us one.”
Indeed, United might be further than four points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea but for the Londoners own inconsistencies. Without Frank Lampard until December and with Michael Essien now banned for three matches, United might benefit from further slips by Carlo Ancelotti’s men in the coming weeks.
It is up to Ferguson’s team to take full advantage at a ground where the Reds have not lost since the opening day of the 1995/6 season. The 3-1 defeat prompted BBC pundit Alan Hansen to declare that United could “win nothing with kids.” The rest, as the cliché goes, is history with United ending the season with a second double in three years.
Villa, though, has won just once in 27 games against United – the 1-0 win at Old Trafford last season – but could be without 10 players for the Reds’ visit. Carlos Cuellar and Habib Beye also dropped out of the Villa squad this week, while former City midfielder Stephen Ireland is doubtful with ‘flu.
Houllier will again rely on younger players for United’s visit, although the former Liverpool manager boasts a surprisingly good record against Ferguson.
“Sir Alex said to me ‘you are more successful against Manchester United than even Bob Paisley.’ But they’ve won more titles!” said the former French FA technical director.
“Villa have not won against United (at home) for a long time. I would say that at some stage it has to stop.
“It already stopped in a way last year because Villa won at Old Trafford for the first time in 25 encounters or something like that.
“We hope in front of our fans, we give the best of ourselves and get a result.”
It may take something special. After all United remains the only unbeaten team in the country.
Villa – 442 – Friedel; Luke Young, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; Albrighton, Clark, Bannan, Downing; Ashley Young, Agbonlahor. Subs from: Guzan, Hogg, Lowry, Johnson, Lichaj, Delfouneso, Sidwell, Delph, Salifou, Osbourne.
Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Amos, Rafael, Brown, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Smalling, Evans, Evra, Fabio, Obertan, Bébé, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs, Park, Berbatov, Hernández, Macheda.
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistant referees: Simon Beck & Simon Long
Fourth official: Martin Atkinson
Villa – DWWDDW
United – WWWWWD