Sir Alex Ferguson will rotate his playing staff as Manchester United look to take another significant step towards the Premier League title with victory at Wigan Athletic on Wednesday. The United manager has not yet proclaimed United champions, but with the Reds eight points clear and just six games to go, victory at Wigan would surely remove any lingering doubt. However, the 70-year-old coach is likely to freshen up his side, with Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Nani all seeking a recall at the DW Stadium.
United will make the short trip in buoyant mood after 11 wins in the past 12 Premier League fixtures – not to mention a perfect record against the Latics in the past 14 meetings. Few in the United camp will be in any mood to change that series with a title on the line.
While City will aim to extend the race another week by beating West Bromwich Albion at Eastlands on Wednesday, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that United will secure a 20th domestic title in the coming weekend. That would required City to lose twice, while United must take maximum points over the next four days.
First though United must secure three points at Wigan – a ground that has brought much joy to Reds in recent seasons. Ferguson’s side secured the title at the DW in 2008, while a late Michael Carrick strike brought a dramatic United win a year later.
However, Winger Ashley Young says that his United team-mates must stay focused against relegation-threatened Wigan, with the title not yet officially secured.
“Wigan is a tough place to go to – they’re desperate for points and will want to win in front of their own fans,” said Young, who has been heavily criticised for diving against Queens Park Rangers last week.
“We’ve got to be on our toes and be ready for a tough game. I’m sure if we can show the confidence, desire and winning mentality we’ve shown throughout the season, we’ll get the win. I scored my last goal for Villa against Wigan last season at Villa Park and also scored against them away from home, so I’ve enjoyed some decent results against them. Hopefully there will be another to follow tonight.
“We’re just ticking the games off as we go along and staying focused on each one. You obviously want to play well, but at this stage of the season it’s more about results. You just want the three points from every game. We’re eight points clear at the moment but that could end up meaning nothing if we don’t keep our run going.”
With that in mind Ferguson is likely to freshen up his side, with Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand likely to be rested. Smalling and Cleverley could take the veterans places, while Nani is fit to play despite not making the bench for United’s victory over QPR. Ryan Giggs, Javier Hernández, and Phil Jones are also in contention for a recall.
Ferguson has no fresh injuries to report, with only long-term absentees Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and captain Nemanja Vidić definitely out.
Meanwhile, Wigan manager Roberto Martinez is again likely to be without striker Hugo Rodallega, who has a knee injury. However, Victor Moses is fit despite suffering a knock against Chelsea last weekend, while , while former Reds David Jones is close to making a return.
Despite United’s outstanding record against Wigan in recent years the Latics have regained some short-term form, securing wins against Liverpool and Stoke City in the past month. Martinez’ side was also desperately unlucky in defeat at Stamford Bridge last weekend, where refereeing decisions went squarely against the relegation threatened Latics.
“The performances we have had at Anfield and Stamford Bridge this season have got rid of that block,” said Martinez, of his players’ renewed confidence in facing leading sides.
“Against Manchester United you have to be perfect and we know now we can be perfect against these sides. Mentally we are ready for that. We are desperate to test ourselves against them and we are hoping for a bit of luck we have not had over the last few weeks or in the last few games against Manchester United.”
But with the Reds sniffing yet another title it will be a major shock if United does not secure a win on Wednesday night, especially with former Latics winger Antonio Valencia in such outstanding form. Valencia was seen as an unlikely United signing when he moved for £14 million nearly three years ago, but has proven a key weapon in the Reds’ title charge this season.
“If you speak with anyone who worked with Antonio here, they will tell you what an extraordinary character he is,” adds Martinez.
“We all know the quality he has got and now he looks a fresh player. I think Antonio looks a real threat. He looks really sharp and he is enjoying his football, at his best level. It seems as though he has been a key man in every fixture he has played and we are all very happy on one hand, because Antonio left a massive stamp on the football club. But on the other hand we hope he has a bit of a day off against us.”
That seems unlikely in a player who is enjoying the most productive spell of an increasingly fine career. Adding another Premier League title into the mix will do little harm for the modest Valencia’s reputation.
Wigan Athletic versus Manchester United, Premier League, DW Stadium, 11 April 2012, 7.45pm.
Wigan (5-2-3): Al Habsi; Beausejour, Caldwell, Alcaraz, Boyce, Figueroa; Diamé, McCarthy; Moses, Di Santo, Maloney. Subs from: Kirkland, Stam, Crusat, Watson, Gomez, Diame, Sammon, McArthur, Watson.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Evans, Smalling, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Giggs; Rooney, Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Rafael, Fabio, Ferdinand, Nani, Pogba, Welbeck, Berbatov.
Referee: Phil Dowd (Stoke)
Assistants: S Long, D Richardson
Fourth Official: J Moss