Sir Alex Ferguson’s side heads into the weekend fixtures seeking to overturn a run of two Premier League defeats in a row that have threatened Manchester United’s title ambitions. With morale high after victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup last week, Ferguson’s side faces Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford in what should be a routine victory. But, as Ferguson’s found out during the New Year’s Eve defeat to Blackburn Rovers, complacency in this division can be a highly destructive force.
Yet, with United just three points behind City in the Premier League, Ferguson knows that momentum is now crucial to United’s chances of overhauling the crosstown neighbours. However, the Reds may again have to make do without a plethora of key players for the Trotters visit. While long-term absentees Tom Cleverley, Nemanja Vidić and Darren Fletcher are definitely missing, Ferguson also has concerns over a trio of stars. Chris Smalling, Anderson and Phil Jones will face late tests before facing relegation threatened Wanderers.
Even if the trio makes it, Ferguson is aware that United must perform with far more intensity than against Blackburn, or indeed, during the second half of FA Cup victory over City last weekend.
“We’ve got one or two doubts for tomorrow,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.
“Smalling and Jones picked up knocks in the derby. We’ll see what they’re like tomorrow. Anderson got a knock in training, but hopefully he’ll be okay. So we’ve got a reasonable squad for tomorrow.
“We need a good performance against a team that will battle for everything. Any team near the bottom of the table will do that, as we experienced at home to Blackburn. We went into the Blackburn game with respect for them but it wasn’t a great performance. We have to address Bolton’s challenge properly. These clubs are fighting for their existence and we expect just the same from Bolton. It’s a local derby too, which adds something to it.”
Yet, anything less than three points against Bolton is unthinkable, with Ferguson believing that it may take anything up to 90 points to take the Premier League this season. With just 18 games to go, United may not be able to drop more than nine points during the run-in. Indeed, with the Reds to face Arsenal, Chelsea, City and Tottenham Hotspur away from home, Ferguson may yet live to regret the six points lost over the Christmas programme.
“The main difference I can see this season is that City have amassed a bigger points total than Chelsea or Arsenal would normally have managed by this stage,” added Ferguson.
“Their first half of the season was fantastic, and the way it’s going we could be looking at something approaching 90 points to win this league. It could certainly be a number in the high 80s, and that is surprising really, because in recent seasons more teams have been taking points off each other.
“Two or three years back there was definitely a tightening up of the league. It became a bit harder and instead of four teams battling for the top positions you had six, with Manchester City and Tottenham coming into the reckoning as well. That makes it far more interesting for the spectators and neutrals.”
With points at a premium Ferguson is likely to stick, largely, with the team that won at Eastlands last week. The Scot will again find a place on the bench for Paul Scholes. However, with Phil Jones looking in desperate need of a rest, Jonny Evans could find a place in defence, the Northern Irishman’s fitness permitting. Anderson, desperately needing minutes, could start his first Premier League match this year.
Meanwhile, defender Rio Ferdinand is likely to be fit despite a midweek stomach bug. The veteran defender says that beating City in the FA Cup last weekend was the perfect boost to an injury-hit United squad that had suffered defeats to Blackburn and Newcastle United the week previously.
“You always know there will be ups and downs during the season,” said the 33-year-old former Leeds United defender.
“We had a bad week the one before [the City game], losing two games. But there is no better game to come back than Manchester City. It was a great first-half. In the second we took our foot off the gas and let them back in the game, but the result is the most important thing and we got through to the next round.
“Hopefully Manchester City and Tottenham will experience lows that go on a lot longer and we can get a few players back from injury and push on. If any other squad in the league had the same amount of players out that we have had, they wouldn’t be sitting where we are. That speaks volumes for our squad and that’s why when I am in the changing room I’m more than happy with the people I see around me.”
The opposition arrives under severe pressure to put points on the board, with the Trotters firmly inside the bottom three. And with key defender Gary Cahill set to move to Chelsea this week, manager Owen Coyle’s job is unlikely to get any easier. Yet, having secured a 2-1 victory over Everton at Goodison last time out, Coyle’s men arrive having moved off the foot of the Premier League at least. Coyle is also boosted by ‘keeper Jussi Jaskelaainen’s return after the Finn missed the last two games with a thigh injury.
Yet, with Bolton having won at Old Trafford just once in the past decade, history is firmly in United’s corner. United has won 12 of the last 14 meetings with Bolton, and hasn’t lost to the Trotters since September 2007.
Indeed, defeat to Bolton would be the third league loss in a row – that hasn’t happened for more than 10 years, and even then, the Reds had already won the league by 10 points.
Manchester United versus Bolton Wanderers, Premier League, Old Trafford, Saturday 14 January 2012, 3pm.
United (4-4-1-1): Lindegaard; Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Nani; Rooney. Subs from: De Gea, Fryers, Cole, Giggs, Fabio, Rafael, Jones, Park, Lingard, Diouf, Keane, Hernandez, Welbeck, Berbatov.
Bolton (4-5-1): Jaskelaainen; Riley, Knight, Wheater, Robinson; Eagles, Muamba, M Davies, Reo-Coker, Petrov; Ngog. Subs from: Bogdan, Lynch, Pratley, Tuncay, K Davies, Klasnic, Lainton, Steinsson, Ricketts, Blake, Boyata, Vela, O’Halloran
- Manchester United stumbled to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Newcastle in the club’s last Premier League match;
- Michael Carrick covered the most ground for united in that game with 5.88 miles. The midfielder has covered 62.45 miles so far this season, averaging 5.2 miles per game. He has also completed 244 passes in his opponent’s area, averaging one every four minutes;
- The goals conceded against Newcastle were the first Anders Lindegaard has conceded in the Premier League. The United ‘keeper had made 28 saves in six appearances for United before then;
- Wayne Rooney has retained the position of the top ranked player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for most of the season;
- Rooney has hit 13 goals so far this season from 73 efforts at goal with 67 per cent on target. Only Robin van Persie has had more shots at goal, but the Dutchman’s on target percentage is lower at 61 per cent;
- Rooney also has four assists to his name, has completed a pass in his opponent’s half every three minutes, and covers, on average, 5.9 miles per game;
- Meanwhile visitors Bolton beat Everton 2-1 in the side’s last Premier League fixture, with Gary Cahill scoring the winner in what may have been his last game for the club;
- Cahill has won 36 of 50 tackles so far this season, a success rate of 78 percent, and he has made an 134 interceptions, 29 clearances and 15 blocks;
- Striker David Ngog was also on the scoresheet with his second Premier League goal for the Trotters, coming from 21 efforts at goal.
Referee: Peter Walton (Long Buckby)
Assistants: S Ledger, D C Richards
Fourth Official: S Attwell