Paul Scholes makes a welcome return as Birmingham City visit Old Trafford this afternoon. The 36-year-old playmaker has missed almost two months action with a groin problem but start for Manchester United’s second fixture with the Midlanders inside a month. With Manchester City in action this evening, United can move three points clear in the Premier League with victory over Alex McCleish’s outfit.
However, manager Sir Alex Ferguson must compensate for Rafael da Silva’s absence at right-back, with the 20-year-old defender serving a one-match suspension following his dismissal against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. The Brazilian escaped further censure after an FA hearing on Thursday handed the defender an £8,000 fine and a warning about his future conduct following an angry reaction to Mike Dean’s decision at White Hart Lane.
John O’Shea, who played for the reserves during the week, Wes Brown or Fabio da Silva could come into the side in Rafael’s absence.
“Replacing Rafa is something I’ll have to consider, plus one or two other changes,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.
“Fabio could possibly come in. John O’Shea and Wes Brown are back in training and played for the Reserves, so they’re both available. Other than that, everyone is OK.
“Paul Scholes played an hour in the Reserves and he was on the bench at Tottenham. I was ready to put him on before Rafael got sent off.
“The Birmingham games in the last few years haven’t produced a lot of goals. Hopefully we can change that trend. Our home form has been very good this season, and it has to be now. It’s kicking on time.”
Rafael’s loss is a measure of the progress the 20-year-old has made this season, with the Brazilian now a permanent fixture in Ferguson’s side, prompting Gary Neville’s likely retirement in the summer. Wes Brown is also set to move on in 2011 but Ferguson has ruled out any departure on loan this winter.
However, Scholes’ return boosts United’s creative options, which were conspicuous by their absence at Spurs last weekend. Superb defensively, United created just four shots on target against the Londoners. Ryan Giggs is also likely to play, with the Welshman confirming he is seeking another year’s contract with the club.
“Antonio is doing well now, he has started his running programme and he’s out with the physios every day, which is a big step forward,” said Ferguson.
“He’s been given the all clear from the doctors, so he’s under our complete control now. That’s great news.
“I think possibly towards the end of February he should be back in the first team squad. That’s a big boost to us.”
Ferguson will resist the temptation to rest Wayne Rooney though, despite the player’s continued below-par form. The striker misplaced 50 per cent of attempted passes against Spurs and has scored just one goal from open play all season.
Meanwhile, Birmingham City arrives in Manchester having not scored at Old Trafford for 30 years and lost nine times in a row at the Theatre of Dreams. But McCleish’s outfit earned a point at St. Andrews on Boxing Day, with Dimitar Berbatov scoring United’s only goal before the home side secured a controversial late equaliser.
For Birmingham, Cameron Jerome and Sebastian Larsson are available after both missed last weekend’s derby with Aston Villa. And Ben Foster returns to Old Trafford for the first time since his £6 million move south in the summer. However, key defender Scott Dann has been ruled out through injury until the summer.
Should United avoid defeat it will stretch the club’s unbeaten Premier League run to 26 matches, across two seasons. United is only the seventh in top-flight history to remain unbeaten after 21 league matches. Nobody at Old Trafford will countenance a change in that record today.
Birmingham – 451 – Foster; Carr, Johnson, Ridgewell, Murphy; Bentley, Larsson, Gardner, Ferguson, Hleb; Jerome. Subs from: Fahey, Zigic, Bowyer, Taylor, Jiranek, Beausejour, Mutch, Phillips, Derbyshire.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Scholes, Giggs; Berbatov, Rooney. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Amos, Evans, Brown, Smalling, O’Shea, Carrick, Gibson, Owen, Bébé, Obertan, Hernández, Obertan, Anderson.
Referee: Mike Jones
Assistant referees: John Flynn & Andy Madley
Fourth official: Phil Dowd
United – WDWWWD
Birmingham – DLDLWD
Sir Alex Ferguson criticised referee Lee Mason for missing three infringements in Birmingham City’s last-minute equaliser last night as Manchester United slipped to a seventh Premier League draw on the road this season. The Scot was right to feel aggrieved with Mason missing a handball, offside and foul on Rio Ferdinand in the build up.
In truth though, United should have put the game to bed well before Lee Bowyer’s controversial 90th minute equaliser at St Andrew’s. Once again, United’s failure to retain a lead cost Ferguson’s outfit points and a chance to move clear at the head of the Premier League table.
Indeed, was it not for the inconsistency of rivals, United could surely not sustain a league challenge with an away record that boasts just one domestic win all season.
“It was handball. There was [also] a foul on the centre-half. “He [Nicola Zigic] went right through the back of him [Ferdinand]. If the ref can’t see that, what chance have you got?” said Ferguson of Birmingham’s equalising goal.
“That’s where we expect – to get a referee who sees that. If you can’t see that, what chance have you got?”
Yet, United was nothing like as fluent against the Brummies as in the win over Sunderland on Boxing Day, despite Dimitar Berbatov’s 14th goal of an increasingly profitable season. The Bulgarian’s strike from the edge of the opposition area on the hour should have paved the way for a second United win of the Christmas programme. But as in early season games against Fulham and Everton, United gave up two potentially precious points at the death.
“I think it is terribly harsh,” added Ferguson.
“I think we outplayed them in the second half. We deserved to win the game, we were the better team. Maybe we should have finished them off. We just lacked a bit more care in our final pass and finishing.”
United began the match seeking to leapfrog Manchester City, whose win earlier in the day had taken the Blues top of the Premier League for the first time this season. Birmingham’s dogged perseverance – and luck at the death – means United regain top spot once again if only on goal difference from Roberto Mancini’s outfit.
In any case, the match was never likely to offer the Reds three easy points, with the Brummies having lost just once in the past 23 games at St Andrew’s.
Indeed, United struggled to break Birmingham down for much of the match, with former Red Ben Foster too rarely called into action. Chances came infrequently – Ryan Giggs almost scored with an attempted cross, while Berbatov’s neat exchange with Darron Gibson created the visitors’ only goal. Foster made just two further saves in a match that offered too little to footballing purists.
Perhaps most striking though was Wayne Rooney’s role – pushed to the left of United’s five-man midfield for much of the game, albeit with a license to support Berbatov in attack. The move limited Rooney’s attacking opportunities and his failure to hit the net means the former Evertonian is still yet to score a goal from open play this season.
United’s obvious lack of natural width also blunted the visitors’ edge. With Park Ji-Sung at the Asian Cup until February, Nani not fit for the trip to Birmingham and Antonio Valencia out until the Spring, Ferguson requires find additional options – quickly.
That Ferguson does not trust options already at the club suggests the Scot may dip into the market this January. Gabriel Obertan sat out the game on the bench, while £8 million Portuguese winger Bébé failed to make United’s matchday squad.
For all the obvious weaknesses in United’s squad Ferguson’s outfit remains in pole position heading into the third fixture of Christmas week.
“At this moment there are five or six teams who are all contesting that area at the top but if you get to new year and you are in that front position then you have a great chance,” added Ferguson.
Should United win at West Bromwich Albion tomorrow night, the Scot’s side will indeed be in that position with Arsenal fragile, City inconsistent and Chelsea in the worst run of form since the Roman Abramovich ear began.
The problem – points on the road are far from guaranteed.
Birmingham – 451 – Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Bowyer, Larsson (Hleb 69), Gardner, Ferguson, Beausejour (Zigic 82); Jerome (Phillips 85).
United – 451 – Van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Gibson (Hernandez 90), Anderson (Fletcher 73), Carrick, Giggs, Rooney; Berbatov.
Attendance – 28,242
Man of the Match – Berbatov
Possession: Birmingham 55% – 45% United
Attempts: 8 – 10
On Target: 3 – 4
Corners: 4 – 4
Fouls: 10 – 11
Manchester United arrive in Birmingham for the second fixture of a busy week in high spirits. Top of the Premier League, unbeaten and with rivals dropping points, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team aims to capitalise on a profitable period. Yet, former Red Ben Foster stands in the way of a just a second Premier League win on the road this season.
Ferguson should welcome back both Nani and Darren Fletcher to the traveling party, with the pair missing United’s comfortable win over Sunderland on Sunday. The Portuguese has a minor hip complaint while Fletcher is suffering with a heavy cold. However, United will be without winger Park Ji-Sung who has departed for the Asian cup until February, while John O’Shea misses out.
With Birmingham now an established Premier League outfit United can expect a tough fixture, although the Brummies have not emerged victorious from the tie since 1978. Still, Foster has gone some way to re-establishing his reputation following a difficult spell at Old Trafford in the past two years.
“Going down there is always a difficult place to go to,” said Ferguson. “They have always had a strong home record and are difficult to beat on their own ground.”
In Park’s absence Ferguson is likely to retain veteran Ryan Giggs, although Gabriel Obertan and Bébé remain options despite the pair’s limited activity at the top-level so far this season.
Indeed, Park’s absence – despite his many critics – will be keenly felt by United, with Ferguson retaining so few top class options in wide areas. Against a stubborn Birmingham City outfit, United’s lack of width could tell unless Wayne Rooney discovers not only his best form, but his shooting boots too.
“Wayne had a couple of tries against Sunderland,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“He was very unlucky with the chip and there were a couple of shots saved by the goalkeeper. He is getting there. The important thing is he is playing well. That is refreshing.”
However, Rooney is yet to score from open play this season – and not since 21 March – although the former Everton striker has played a noticeably deeper role in recent games. With United’s record on the road poor – just one win from seven Premier League games this season – Rooney might be crucial in turning around the record.
Indeed, there could hardly be a better time for United to win away from Old Trafford with Chelsea losing at the Emirates on Monday night. Rooney might just see the St Andrews fixture as an ideal moment to break his duck and fire the Reds nine points clear of Chelsea.
However, legend Giggs has warned against complacency creeping into United’s game despite the Reds’ outstanding recent form, which translated into a flowing performance against Steve Bruce’s Sunderland.
“You are obviously wary because of the way the league has been this year,” said Giggs.
“Anyone can beat anyone. We are thankful we remain unbeaten and confidence is high. But we realise that nothing can be taken for granted. It is a tough league and we need to be at our best in every game.
“We hope to get better in the second half of the season. Our form over the last few weeks has been really good. We looked sharp against Arsenal and Blackburn, and it was the same against Sunderland.
“Some of the play we produced, the one-touch passing and the movement, was great to be involved in.”
United’s performance in the first half against Sunderland was arguably the finest of the season – including the recent thrashing of Blackburn Rovers. Yet United, comfortable at 2-0 on the hour, eased off significantly. Whether complacency or expediency it is unlikely Birmingham will offer the visitors a similar level of comfort in front of the St Andrews’ crowd.
Meanwhile, Alex McCleish welcomes back former Arsenal star Alexander Hleb for United’s visit. The Belarusian has suffered with a hamstring complaint. McCleish, who played under Ferguson at Aberdeen in the 1980s, will also have Liam Ridgewell for the leaders’ visit.
Birmingham – 442 – Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson, Bowyer, Ferguson, Hleb; Jerome, Zigic. Subs from: Taylor, Derbyshire, Michel, Parnaby, Phillips, Gardner, Beausejour, Murphy, Fahey
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Carrick, Kuzszazk, Amos, Fabio da Silva, Evans, Smalling, O’Shea, Brown, Gibson, Obertan, Bébé, Hernández, Macheda, Owen.
Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant referees: Mike Cairns & Ron Ganfield
Fourth official: Anthony Taylor
Birmingham – DWDWDL
United – WWLDWW
Manchester United missed the chance to retake the Premier League lead as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men were held 1-1 at in-form Birmingham City. But United, seeking redemption after last weekend’s humiliating FA Cup third round defeat to Leeds United, left St. Andrew’s indebted to a controversial equaliser in the second city.
Ferguson declared himself satisfied with a point, although the Scot will know that this is not the stuff of Premier League titles. But grateful for small mercies, United’s manager was happy to take anything back to Manchester after Alex McCleish’s side pushed the Reds to the limit.
United started brightly though, dominating possession through the middle of the park with a three-man central trio of Paul Scholes in the holding role, supported by erstwhile defenders Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick.
Indeed, it was United’s Scottish enforcer Fletcher who created the first chance as United monopolised the opening passages of the match. Then Joe Hart, by far the busier of the two ‘keepers for the opening half-hour, saved superbly from Wayne Rooney. Set clear by the lively Antonio Valencia, United’s leading marksman could not convert in a key moment.
Then chances came for Carrick and Ji-Sung Park in quick succession as the home side defended both desperately and gallantly at times.
But Birmingham isn’t on a 13-match unbeaten streak under Ferguson protegé McCleish without a little of the master’s character. Arriving completely against the run-of-play, Cameron Jerome beat Tomasz Kuszczak just moments before the half-time break as Birmingham scored with the home side’s first chance in the game. Ferguson’s men defended poorly from the home side’s corner, enabling striker Jerome to poke home from yards out.
The goal lifted the home side, who began the second half with intent. Indeed, the outstanding Christian Benitez forced a save from Kuszczak before Jerome wasted another good opportunity.
United, leveling on the hour, was controversially back in the match as referee Mark Clattenburg overruled his assistant’s offside flag. Desperate Birmingham defenders blocked Rooney and then Scholes’ efforts before Scott Dann turned Evra’s shot across the box into his own net.
Birmingham protested but Clattenburg got the decision spot-on with the home side’s defender touching the ball into his own net, therefore eliminating the possibility of offside.
Birmingham and the visitors traded chances, with Evra and Rooney testing Hart in the home goal, while Paul Scholes shot narrowly over before the game ended in more controversy. United’s midfielder enforcer Darren Fletcher saw red for a second bookable offence late in the match.
“I’ve not seen a softer sending off for a long time, it was absolutely ridiculous,” said Ferguson.
“I watched Mark Clattenburg at the Arsenal-Spurs game and you had to have somebody hit by an axe to get booked. There were some weird and wonderful decisions out there.”
And while the Scot has every right to bemoan the dismissal, perhaps one of the more poignant decisions of the afternoon came in attack where United’s Senegalese striker Mame Biram Diouf made his debut as a late substitute. Dimitar Berbatov, not selected in the matchday squad traveling to Birmingham, may yet regret his ambivalent performance against Leeds United last week.
“We played ever so well in the first half but at the moment Birmingham are in such good form and work so hard that I’m satisfied with a point, particularly as we ended with 10 men,” Ferguson said.
“To lose the goal just before half-time after dominating the game was a real sickener.
“But the most important thing is to persevere in situations like that. We have got the experience to do that. But this is a tough league. Birmingham have really improved since they have come into this division.”
Yet for all Birmingham’s good recent form it says something for how far United’s star has fallen in recent months that Ferguson should choose his ‘European’ five-man midfield for an away fixture against one of the Premier League’s less fashionable sides.
United in its pomp expects to win in Birmingham. Yesterday, the team arrived hoping not to lose.
Ronaldo-less Manchester United will take on Birmingham City in the season 2009/10 opening fixture on August 15 at Old Trafford. Other notable pre-Christmas dates include a home match against Arsenal on August 29, the first derby of the season, at home to Manchester City, on September 19 and then Liverpool away on October 24. United finish the season with fixtures against Chelsea, Blackburn, City, Tottenham, Sunderland, with the final game of the season at home to Stoke on May 9. At first glance the fixture list appears even, although away ties at Liverpool in October and Chelsea in November both follow a Champions League match, which may not please Sir Alex Ferguson.