Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson should arrange an injury crisis every week, because the current Old Trafford incarnation has certainly put a pep in the Scot’s side over the past week. Once facing up to the New Year behind title rivals Manchester City, United could now top the Premier League before the year is out. Moreover, with 10 goals for and none against in the past week, Ferguson’s side has rapidly closed on City’s goal difference advantage too.
Yet, it is a strange week in which United has returned to the trailblazing form of the late summer, scoring five against both Fulham and Wigan Athletic in the space of six days. In doing so Ferguson’s side has coped without a full team of injured players. Indeed, the Scot was forced to deploy Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia in the back four at Old Trafford on Monday as the list of absentees mounts.
Ferguson was already without half-a-dozen long-term injury victims before the weekend, with Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Michael Owen, Fabio da Silva and Nemannja Vidić all out of the Scot’s side for weeks to months. The United manager can hardly have relished calls from Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, each falling victim to a seasonal virus. Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand’s troublesome back has forced the 33-year-old out of United’s past three matches, and Ashley Young will be on the sidelines for weeks with ankle trouble.
Worse news came during the victory over Roberto Martinez’ relegation-threatened outfit as Jonny Evans limped out of the match after pulling a hamstring. The Northern Irishman will miss around a fortnight. Evans is simply the latest in a crisis that now leaves Ferguson without 11 players.
No wonder that Ferguson was beaming with his patched-up side’s performance at Old Trafford, even if the goal tally was more than aided by referee Phil Dowd’s bizzare decision to send off Wigan striker Conor Sammon during the first half.
“We have had a nightmare in the last few days,” admitted Ferguson, who at least can welcome back Rafael da Silva back into his squad.
“Phil Jones came down ill, Chris Smalling was ill and Rio called off with a back injury in training, all within a few hours of each other. Then Jonny Evans came off injured at half- time. It does put some pressure on but fortunately we had a good first half and we’ve managed to get through the game and score some goals.
“I said some weeks ago someone is going to suffer against us and we are really hitting good form now. There’s a real goal threat from us from all departments. It’s a long season and, if we can be top or joint top on New Year’s Day, I’ll be happy.”
Jones and Smalling could return for United’s 31 December fixture with Blackburn Rovers; a match that should take the Reds top, with City away at Sunderland on New Year’s day. And while Roberto Mancini’s men play again before United travel to Newcastle United on 4 January, City will face Liverpool at Anfield with less than 48 hours rest. It could prove to be a pivotal period in the Premier League season, when City’s seemingly iron-clad grip on the title race is permanently loosened.
Then comes the derby with City on 9 January as United visits Eastlands in the FA Cup. First, however, Ferguson could use nearly a dozen players returning to the squad.
“I am a little bit worried because we need everyone if we are going to win the league,” added Evra, who was forced to play the second half against Wigan in central defence.
“It is starting to get annoying. It is not the first year we have had so many injuries. Two years ago I played with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher at the back. The most important thing is that we won but I hope everyone gets fit because Blackburn is another big game and we need all the defenders.”
Ferguson should at least have greater options in defence for the match with bottom club Blackburn, although the rash of injuries midfielder Park Ji-Sung described as the “worst he has ever known” will surely threaten the Reds’ ambitions if it continues at the current heightened rate. But even if Ferguson’s resources are depleted for some time – and with a squad few believe is comparable to previous vintages – then the Scot’s ability to drive his more limited options to glory will again be required.
“This is the United spirit,” adds Evra.
“If you want to win, you have to accept it. You can see Antonio Valencia playing right-back as well. Only because United play like a team. The team is the star, not only one player, that’s why you can put me and Michael Carrick at centre-back; we’re going to win because it’s the team effort and team spirit.”
It has served United well in matches against Fulham and Wigan over the past week. Perhaps none more so that Dimitar Berbatov, who has returned to form with a flurry of superbly taken goals. Berbatov is scorer of four in two matches, yet the Bulgarian has been largely a peripheral figure this season.
Greater challenges, of course, lie ahead. But for the moment supporters can bask in the warmth of two thumping victories and a side playing some attractive football.