Wayne Rooney returns to the Manchester United side as Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit seeks to reduce the five point gap to Manchester City in the Premier League. With the Blues having comfortably beaten Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, United visit high flying Norwich City seeking an ninth victory on the road this season. Rooney’s return provides a timely boost to Ferguson’s side following the Europa League defeat to Ajax in midweek.
However, proving that every silver cloud has a dark injury lining this season, United will be without Tom Cleverley after the midfielder injured his right ankle against the Dutch on Thursday night. It is not thought to be serious, but the 22-year-old midfielder will also now miss England’s friendly will Holland next week.
The Reds visit Norwich for the first time in nearly seven years, having lost 2-0 on the sides last encounter at Carrow Road. In the intervening years Norwich has suffered relegation, but under Scot Paul Lambert, been rejuvenated this season. Indeed, only a spectacular collapse will now drag the Canaries into the relegation mix after Lambert’s side performed so admirably over the past six months.
On a limited budget, Lambert has fashioned an attacking side that can both play attractive football and mix it up when required. And in Grant Holt, Norwich possesses a striker who is over-performing this season. There is, says Ferguson, much to admire in the Norfolk club’s approach.
“Norwich is an interesting club because they have a full house for every match,” Ferguson told ManUtd.com.
“It’s in a lovely part of the world. They’ve got their own little empire down there. It’s just like when I was at Aberdeen, it feels as though you’re cut off from everywhere. Nonetheless they’re being very successful with it. I think they have probably exceeded everyone’s expectations. In fact, all the teams who were promoted have excelled, particularly Norwich. They’ve not signed a lot of players, they’ve stuck to their normal way of doing things, and although it’s difficult to say nowadays, I think they’ll be okay [in terms of staying up].”
Norwich’s progress this season guarantees a competitive fixture for United, and although Rooney returns to Ferguson’s starting side after missing much of last week’s training with a sore throat, Cleverley’s absence so soon after returning from injury is a major blow. Ferguson will be thankful, then, that the 22-year-old midfielder has not damaged the left ankle that has proven to be so troublesome this season.
In Antonio Valencia’s continued absence, Ferguson is likely to select Ashley Young and Nani in wide areas, with Paul Scholes and 899-game veteran Ryan Giggs competing for a starting spot in central midfield. Rio Ferdinand returns after being rested for the midweek fixture against Ajax. Ferguson will choose between Danny Welbeck and midweek goalscorer Javier Hernández to partner Rooney in attack.
Indeed, Ferguson is certain to select a far stronger side than the inexperienced outfit that lost to Ajax in midweek. The Scot accepted the blame for that defeat, and with three points on offer on Sunday, will be expecting a strong reaction from his troops. Ferguson’s respect for his fellow Scot should ensure than no complacency creeps into his side’s performance as it has done in two fixtures against Ajax over the past 10 days.
“I knew Paul when he was a kid at St Mirren,” added Ferguson on Friday.
“He played under my brother, Martin, when Martin was a coach. Paul’s had a great career – he collected a European Cup winner’s medal with Borussia Dortmund and then he went on to Celtic. I think Norwich, for a young manager, is probably a good club to go to, where the expectation’s not too high and you’ve got a full house every week. There’s a lot of enthusiasm down there and I think it’s suited Paul well.”
Meanwhile, Lambert has Zak Whitbread available after hamstring injury, although Daniel Ayala, Marc Tierney and Jonny Howson are definitely out. Absences are unlikely to spoil the Canaries’ rhythm though – Norwich has lost just one of the past seven league fixtures, although FA Cup defeat to Leicester City last weekend will sting.
History is on United’s side though. Norwich has only beaten the Reds once in the sides past 13 league meetings – in April 2005 when goals from strikers Dean Ashton and Leon McKenzie secured a 2-0 victory. Fast forward seven years and another striker, Holt, who has nine Premier League goals this season, is likely to provide a physical test to both United’s back-four and goalkeeper David de Gea. It is a challenge that defender Jonny Evans – outstanding in recent weeks – is prepared to meet, despite the fallibility that United has shown this season under the high ball.
“Norwich have done well since they got promoted,” said the Northern Irishman.
“It seems like a pretty tough place to go. They have two big lads up front who seem to make it hard for you. I think Holt has played in every league. He is a big strong boy, as is Morison. It is going to be a real battle, a lot different to Ajax. In the Premier League, you are used to challenges, when it is a bit more rough. Paul Lambert seems to have them working really hard. It is going to be a tough game. It is a game their fans and players will have been looking forward to all season.
“These next two games are massive. We just have to keep the pressure on. Two points is nothing – you never feel like you are in control. I am sure they don’t. Once slip and it all changes. We want to keep within touching distance so if they do slip up, we can overtake them. The longer it goes, the more nervous they will get. They have been in front for quite a while now. We have been close to catching them. I am sure they would like the season to end now.”
Yet, any repeat of the 2005 defeat to Norwich would leave Ferguson’s side five points behind and playing catch up. It leaves anything less than the full three points unthinkable for the Scot’s men.
Norwich City versus Manchester United, Premier League, Carrow Road, 26 February 2012, 1.30pm.
Norwich (4-4-2): Ruddy; R Martin, Ward, Naughton, Drury; Surman, Pilkington, Fox, Bennett; Holt, Jackson. Subs from: Steer, Barnett, Johnson, Crofts, Hoolahan, Morison, Wilbraham
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Smalling, Rafael, Fryers, Cole, Giggs, Park, Pogba, Hernández, Berbatov.
Stats to Note
- Norwich has proven to be one of the surprise packages this season, with the Canaries currently in eighth place in the Premier League, winning four of the last six games;
- Wayne Rooney scored twice in quick succession after half-time in United’s last Premier League fixture, against Liverpool, taking his tally to 17 Premier League goals this season;
- Norwich snuck past Swansea City last weekend after another stand out display by Holt. According to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index Holt has had a 40 per cent shot success rate this season, scoring nine goals in the process;
- Patrice Evra is the only player in this fixture to feature in the top 30 for distance covered this season;
- Untied will miss key provider Valencia, who may return next weekend against Tottenham Hotspur. According to the Index Valencia has swung in a cross every eighteen minutes this season;
- Steve Morison has been one of Norwich’s main attacking players this season. Morison has stike success rate of 27.5 per cent, scoring nine goals in the league. Morison’s last goal came against West Bromwich Albion.
Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)
Assistants: G Beswick, D Richardson
Fourth Official: J Moss