Manchester United faces bottom club Blackburn Rovers this weekend, with top place in the Premier League on offer should Sir Alex Ferguson’s men achieve at least a point in the Saturday lunchtime fixture. In truth, United will be gunning for a third heavy win on the bounce against Steve Kean’s relegation-threatened strugglers, even if Ferguson’s injury list still runs 10 strong.
Indeed, United can grab a three-point lead with victory over the Premier League’s rank no-hopers, offering Ferguson a very happy 70th birthday, which the legendary manager celebrates on New Year’s Eve. The Scot should welcome Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand back to the match-day squad, but is still likely to field an experimental back-four for Blackburn’s visit to Old Trafford.
Despite the patchwork nature of the Reds’ defence in recent matches, Ferguson will be confident of celebrating his special day in style, with United having scored 10 in the past two fixtures. And Ferguson’s belief is undiminished despite the ongoing injury crisis, with the Scot prepared to push players into unfamiliar positions if necessary.
“Obviously injuries to the defenders are quite a concern now, with Jonny Evans taken off at half-time [against Wigan Athletic],” confirmed Ferguson.
“We’re hoping Phil Jones will be fit, there’s possibly an outside chance that Rio Ferdinand will get on the bench. Other than that, we’re the same. We can cope, especially in home games. Michael Carrick’s form has been one of the key points in recent wins. He can pass the ball and has the height, pace and experience.
“It wasn’t a problem for him against Wigan. He was flawless. Patrice also has the experience and the spring to head the ball. If that is the case then fine. We will get on with it. We are at home. We will have the majority of the ball. We have to make sure we are positive when we have it and do enough to win.
“Chris Smalling has got tonsillitis. I know there are reports about glandular fever but they’re off the mark. He had glandular fever as a kid but that’s not the case here. He should be ready for the Newcastle game, at least definitely the Manchester City game in the FA Cup. He’ll be ready for those games.”
Jones returns to bolster Ferguson’s side, although the 19-year-old may play in central midfield, with Michael Carrick once again likely to fill in at centre-half. With Antonio Valencia probably starting ahead of Rafael da Silva on the right, Ferguson will field at least two players out of position against a Blackburn attack containing in-form Yakubu Aiyegbeni.
Meanwhile, in midfield Ryan Giggs may start a second game in a row, with Darron Gibson and Park Ji-Sung also in contention. Mexican striker Javier Hernández may come into attack – despite Dimitar Berbatov’s hat-trick on Monday – with Ferguson keen to rotate his squad over a busy Christmas and New Year period. Indeed, the Bulgarian may not be afforded the opportunity to repeat his five goal haul in United’s 7-1 victory in the same fixture last season.
Whatever the team selection it is a period in which the Reds will surely emerge as the Premier League front-runners, beginning 2012 leading the pack, and with the experience to bring home a 20th domestic title come May.
“We have plenty of options in attack and I’m pleased with the form,” added Ferguson.
“Hopefully we can keep the momentum going. The form is good and the players are enjoying themselves too. It’s only the end of December. We surrendered a 12 point lead to Arsenal some years ago and won the title despite being 12 points behind Newcastle. Last year, in November, Chelsea were so many points clear that they were odds-on. But they hit a bump and we took over.
“So I think, with some of the games coming up in the second half of the season, you can’t say for certain that’s going to be the case [Arsenal and Chelsea are too far behind to win]. The difficulty for them is they’ve got to overtake three teams so, unless the three teams collapse, only that will be an opportunity for Arsenal or Chelsea to take advantage of. As for Spurs, I think they play the best football in the country. The current team, in the form they’re in at the moment, is the best in the country.”
However, with City facing tough fixtures within a 48 hour period against Sunderland and Liverpool, Ferguson will consider the next few fixtures pivotal in the Premier League campaign. While the Scot may look enviously at City’s plentiful resources, Ferguson, 70 years young, will thrive on placing the Blue half of Manchester under pressure in the coming days.
It is Ferguson’s level of experience in the arena that Welsh legend Ryan Giggs says will be vital before the campaign concludes in May.
“The experience that the manager, the players and the coaching staff have of what’s required in the second half of the season, as well as the overall hunger and desire to win competitions, will help us,” Giggs told ManUtd.com.
“Big players can’t wait for big games. Towards the end of the season the games just get bigger and bigger. For me personally, you want that in the run-in – you want to be involved in big games and going for the title. That’s why you become a footballer. Obviously City have got off to a better start but we’re pleased with where we are in the table and especially the form at the moment. We’ll just look to kick on as we always do in the second half of the season and hopefully we’ll have a bit more luck with injuries and have a strong run after Christmas.
“We’ve had setbacks throughout the years and you learn from them and they can help in a way. I’ve experienced that throughout my career – you might hit bad form or you miss a good chance, and you can’t wait for the next game so you can rectify it. I’m sure all the lads felt like that after the City game and after the Basel game, which was a big disappointment too. You’re going to get setbacks but it’s how you react to them and thankfully we’ve come back strong.”
Meanwhile, a thumping United win could yet relieve Kean of his Blackburn job before the New Year. Kean’s inevitable dismissal at some point this season will disappoint fellow Scot Ferguson, who has publicly supported the younger man.
Kean will bring his embattled troops to Old Trafford wit a plethora of key players doubtful for the fixture, including Paul Robinson, Martin Olsson, David Dunn, and David Hoilett. Ryan Nelsen, Gaël Givet and Vince Grella are definitely out. Meanwhile, Scott Dann’s twisted testicle will not be fit for action, of any kind, until January.
And to stretch the analogy, this is a fixture that, even in its current state of fitness, United surely cannot balls up.
Manchester United versus Blackburn Rovers, Premier League, Old Trafford, Saturday 31 December 2011, 12.45pm.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Valencia, Carrick, Evra, Fryers; Nani, Jones, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Rafael, Pogba, Cole, Diouf, Macheda, Berbatov, Welbeck.
Blackburn (4-5-1): Bunn; Lowe, Samba, Hanley, Henley; Nzonzi; Petrovic, Pedersen, Formica, Vukcevic; Yakubu. Subs from: Kean, Morris, Rochina, Blackman, Goodwillie, Roberts, Blackman, Anderson.
- Manchester United joined Manchester City on xxx points, and went a long way to equalling the goal differential with a 5-0 win over Wigan on Monday;
- Dimitar Berbatov proved that he still is of use at United (or of value in the transfer market) with a brilliant hat-trick. Berbatov now has four goals in the Premier League this season from just eight shots at goal. His minutes per goal rate of one every 70 minutes 45 seconds has now surpassed Edin Dzeko’s as the best in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- United’s other goal scorers Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia have also spent spells on the sidelines this season. Valencia completed 49 passes in his opponent’s half against Wigan, the second highest of any player in the last round of games and just one short of Luka Modric. He also delivered 13 crosses, the highest on the last round, and the second highest in any game this season;
- Another United player resigned to ‘squad’ status, Darron Gibson, covered the most ground for United in that game with 5.71 miles;
- Nani has now put in more crosses than any other player in the Index with 74, one every 19 minutes 11 seconds. It’s the fifth highest in the league, discounting players who have put in fewer than ten crosses;
No fewer than five United players were named in the Index team of the week after the victory over Wigan: Lindegaard, Giggs, Valencia, Nani, and Berbatov;
- Meanwhile, Blackburn’s tough start to the season was given a boost by a point at Anfield in the club’s last Premier League outing;
- Morten Gamst Pedersen’s cross led to a Liverpool own goal to secure the 1-1 draw, and the Norwegian covered the most ground for Blackburn in that game with 7.3 miles, the 8th time he has done so this season. This was also the most ground covered by a single player in the Index in the last round of games;
- Yakubu has scored ten goals so far this season, with a conversion rate of 33 per cent shots to goals, the best in the Index;
- Christopher Samba remains the player to have made the most clearances in the Index with 58 clearances so far this season. Samba’s 11 against Liverpool was the most made by a single player in a game so far this season, while his 23 interceptions was the fifth highest of any player in the league so far this season;
- Stand-in goalkeeper Mark Bunn impressed in the draw at Anfield, and his 13 saves was the joint highest in the last round of games and the joint third highest by a goalkeeper all season.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral)
Assistants: D Richardson, R West
Fourth Official: L Probert