The November-December bubble has truly burst. Manchester United’s defeat to Hull City in the League Cup on Thursday night followed successive draws against Stoke City and Liverpool in the Premier League. With each came a consecutively less impressive performance, culminating in a 2-1 loss at Marco Silva’s bottom-dwellers. United’s defeat in Hull was embarrassing, if not disastrous, but manager José Mourinho will have no doubt that his side must quickly turn a patch of poor form around.
You know it has been a long summer when both participants in the Community Shield look back all doey-eyed on last season’s heroics. Manchester United captured the Premier League title by an emphatic margin, while Wigan Athletic triumphed somewhat impossibly over Manchester City at Wembley.
United’s league victory rounded off Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in charge of the club, but with it came a tough opening two months of David Moyes’ time as successor. Meanwhile, 25 miles east of Old Trafford relegation to the Championship has brought a raft of playing changes and a new manager at Wigan. As Dickens didn’t quite say: it was the best of times, now the worst of times.
The Shield is Moyes’ first competitive fixture in charge after a summer of mixed results on the pitch and serial frustration off it. Defeats in Thailand, Japan and at home to Sevilla last Friday night have brought murmurs of concern from United’s supporters keen for a positive start to the new regime. Meanwhile, the club’s inability to secure either of Moyes’ primary playing targets this summer has left the side painfully short in midfield.
Throw the ongoing Wayne Rooney saga into the mix and Moyes begins the season in an invidious position; keen to hit the ground running, but hamstrung by circumstances largely beyond his control. Indeed, the Scot has less resources at his disposal than his predecessor, positive contributions this summer from younger players notwithstanding.
That may change in the coming three weeks of course, but United heads into the Shield against lower-division opposition in decidedly pensive mood.
With a record against the Latics that reads 16 victories in 17 fixtures Sunday’s game should provide one last boost to team morale before the Premier League kicks off in seven day’s time. Yet, there remains just a modicum of apprehension; after three defeats and two draws in seven games during pre-season the Reds head into the new campaign in anything but good form.
Still, Moyes remains upbeat ahead of Sunday’s game. He can be nothing but; at least not until the campaign begins in earnest over the next few weeks.
“I just cannot wait to get the season started,” said the new United manager.
“I know what it is like to walk out at Old Trafford as the manager of the opposition, so to step out in front of more than 75,000 fans as the Manchester United manager will be a special moment for me.
“Being given the chance to manage a club like this was a dream come true for me and probably more so given that the previous manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, wanted me to be in charge of the club. It won’t always be easy – I know that – but I just hope we can all work together. My sole goal is to be successful and have a winning team.”
On the pitch Moyes will be without Rooney, with the Scouser left out of United’s squad despite being fit to take part at Wembley. The striker has featured for just 45 minutes this summer – in a behind-closed-doors friendly last week – but has suffered a rash of increasingly curious injuries that have kept the 27-year-old out of public-facing fixtures.
In truth, the player’s determination to quit Old Trafford is in little doubt; only the fee and Rooney’s destination is now to be agreed before the transfer window closes on 2 September.
Elsewhere, Moyes may also be without Nani, who suffered a hamstring strain against AIK last week, while Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Namanja Vidić and Chris Smalling are at varying stages of fitness. Rio Ferdinand played more than 80 minutes of his testimonial against Sevilla and is likely to miss out at Wembley.
Winger Wilfried Zaha could feature having enjoyed a fine pre-season, while youngsters Adnan Januzaj and Jesse Lingard will be in the matchday squad for the trip to north London. Each impressed over the summer, Lingard top-scoring on tour, while Januzaj walked away having won hearts and minds of the United faithful.
Jonny Evans could partner Phil Jones in central defence, while Rafael da Silva is available despite having to serve the final game of a three match ban against Swansea City next weekend.
Meanwhile, new Wigan boss Owen Coyle has retained much of the squad relegated from the Premier League last season. Arouna Koné departed in a £6 million move to Everton, while Antolín Alcaraz also joined the Toffees on a free transfer, and Maynor Figueroa signed for Hull City. Shaun Malloney and Callum McManaman have remained with the Latics despite offers elsewhere.
However, the former Bolton Wanderers manager will call on significant top flight experience this season: Scott Carson, James Perch, and Grant Holt have joined from Bursaspor, Newcastle United and Norwich City respectively.
Coyle is without club captain Gary Caldwell, and defenders Ivan Ramis and Thomas Rogne through injury at Wembley, but the squad is fine form having beaten Barnsley 4-0 in the opening weekend of this year’s Championship last Saturday.
“Sunday is an opportunity to win a trophy, it’s as simple as that,” said Coyle.
“We have the task of trying to do that against the champions of England and one of the biggest clubs in world football. So it’s going to be a very tough game for us and we will be labelled as underdogs before the game but we have no doubt that if we perform to the best of our ability on the day then there’s nothing we can’t achieve.
“We’ll be playing against a team with quality all over the pitch and the media spotlight on them as always, after the arrival of David Moyes. I know David well, and I’ve no doubt in my mind that come the end of the season they’ll be right up there once again competing for the title.”
Wigan, though, will play with little pressure at Wembley. Just 5,000 fans will make it to support the FA Cup winners in London, while United has sold more than 47,000 tickets for the match. It is just one further data point that underscores the size of the task Moyes has taken on.
And despite a difficult transitionary summer – and the very likely probability of a tough first few weeks of the campaign – Moyes can add a tropy of sorts on Sunday. It would be folly to underestimate the opportunity.
“I will be trying to make this the first trophy of many,” said 50-year-old Moyes, who claimed no silverware during a decade at Everton.
“But, if we win, it’s really something that will have been earned by Sir Alex. I’ll do my best to finish off the job but it’s Sir Alex who will deserve a lot of the credit if we’re successful at Wembley.”
Manchester United v Wigan Athletic, Community Shield, Wembley, 2pm 10 August 2013
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: Mike Mullarkey and Scott Ledger
Fourth Official: Michael Oliver
New year, same old goal: securing the Premier League title come May, starting with Manchester United’s visit to Wigan Athletic this weekend. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men play the first game of 2013, and the fourth of the festive period, at DW Stadium on Tuesday, seeking to consolidate a seven point lead over rivals Manchester City in the Premier League.
Victories over Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion, together with the draw at Swansea City, have earned Sir Alex Ferguson’s men some breathing room in this year’s title race, although few in the Scot’s side will assume the silverware is secure after last season’s experience. United’s loss at Wigan last April was a significant contributing factor in City’s erosion of the Reds’ eight point Premier League lead.
Ferguson, who turned 71 on Monday, is likely to be further rotate his resources at Wigan after a bruising period, which continues with United’s visit to Upton Park for the FA Cup third round tie next weekend.
The Scot has previously stated that none of his squad will play all four matches over Christmas, leaving Antonio Valencia, Patrice Evra and David de Gea vulnerable to rotation, while captain Nemanja Vidić is unlikely to be risked. The giant Serbian, who has suffered two serious knee injuries in the past year, is taking advice from his doctor over which matches he plays for the Reds.
Rio Ferdinand may return to the starting side alongside Jonny Evans, while Rafael da Silva and Phil Jones may both be available for the clash with relegation-threatened Wigan. Meanwhile, Ferguson could recall a quartet of players who dropped to the bench for United’s victory over West Brom on Saturday.
“Phil could be ready and Rafa will be ready,” confirmed Ferguson. “We rested Robin, Chicharito, Ryan and Paul against West Brom so we’ve got enough freshness to bring in. Wigan had a great result [winning 3-0 at Aston Villa] – it’ll be a hard game on Tuesday.
United’s strength-in-depth has been tested once again this season, with rounds of injuries in both defence and midfield depleting Ferguson’s resources for long stretches. Returning players should bring the Scot’s compliment to near full-strength for the short trip to Wigan, with perhaps only Nani missing from the match-day party.
“The strength of the squad is important,” said captain Vidić, who missed the second half of last season and three months of this campaign.
“The gaffer has always managed to do well with so many players. It has worked well for us, especially when you look at the injuries we have had over the last few years. We have had a lot of injuries in the past. We should look at doing something about that.”
Meanwhile, City host Stoke City at Eastlands, increasing the pressure on United to improve on last season’s result at Wigan; the 1-0 defeat was United’s first in 16 matches against the Latics. Roberto Mancini’s men secured victory over Norwich City last weekend, after the damaging loss at Sunderland, restricting United’s lead to seven points heading into the new year.
“It is good to have this advantage, but we have to be careful” adds Vidić.
“There is still a long way to go. We have the experience of last year when we were eight points in front and in the end it didn’t finish well. I think this season is different. We are more mature. That is a big help for the team.”
Ferguson can also look back on the clean sheet against West Brom with some satisfaction – it was just the fifth of the campaign in all competitions. The Reds muted attacking performance, especially in the second half against the Baggies, undoubtedly contributed to a greater sense of security at the back – a balance that United is yet to fully strike this season.
Still, with United significantly ahead of expectations coming into a traditionally strong period for Ferguson’s teams there is a growing sense of confidence at Old Trafford despite last season’s collapse.
“We know that if we go on a run of 10 or 12 games we’re going to have a great chance of winning something,” admits veteran winger Ryan Giggs.
“We know it’s a key time and we’ve got to start performing and there can be no mistakes. Usually when the stakes are high and the concentration is there, good players produce the goods. We were probably this many points ahead with less games to go last season so we’re only halfway there and there are a lot of tough games to come.”
Meanwhile, Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has no fresh injury concerns ahead of Tuesday’s match. Defender Ivan Ramis completed the victory over Aston Villa on Saturday after over-coming a hamstring injury, although Ben Watson, Albert Crusat, Ryo Miyaichi, Adrian Lopez are all out.
The Latics ended a six-game win-less run in the league with a 3-0 victory over Villa, keeping a clean sheet for just the third time this season. Yet, with just one victory at home since 27 October, Martinez’ side has once again been dragged into a relegation fight.
Yet, while United and Wigan lie at opposition ends of the league table each side has developed an uncomfortable habit of falling behind. Wigan has conceded the opening goal in 13 league games this season, losing a dozen. Meanwhile, United’s ability to recover has secured eight victories from behind this season.
“If we stop giving away goals then we’ve got a great chance this season because we’ve got plenty of goals up front,” concluded Ferguson.
“The fans are enjoying it and in terms of a worldwide audience they’ll be turning their TVs on, whether they’re in America or Australia, to see another 4-3. I think you just get immune to it all as a manager. You only enjoy the high-scoring games when you come back to win them.”
Despite that Ferguson will gleefully settle for another low scoring victory on Tuesday. With a clean sheet, of course.
Wigan Athletic v Manchester United – Premier League, DW Stadium – Tuesday 1 January 2013, 3pm
Wigan (3-4-3): Al Habsi; Caldwell, Boyce, Ramis; Beausejour, McCarthy, Jones, Figueroa; Kone, Di Santo, Maloney. Subs from: Pollitt, Stam, Golobart, Gomez, McArthur, McManaman, Boselli, Orsula, Morris, Fyvie, Redmond, Mustoe
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Büttner; Carrick, Scholes; Young, van Persie, Giggs; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Evra, Smalling, Vidić, Cleverley, Kagawa, Valencia, Welbeck, Powell, Macheda
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: M McDonough, R West
Fourth official: N Swarbrick
Head to Head
Last 10: Wigan 1, United 9, Draw 0
Overall: Wigan 1, United 15, Draw 0
Sir Alex Ferguson’s call for a “line to be drawn in the sand” over the mutual animosity between Liverpool and Manchester United fans dominated the day’s headlines. It is a malevolence that has led to some sections of each support using the deaths at Hillsborough and Munich to their own spiteful ends. And Ferguson’s is a call that will be severely tested in the hotbed atmosphere at Anfield in just over a week, when the abuse delivered will almost certainly be for the victim of racial abuse, Patrice Evra, rather than the memories of the dead.
But Anfield is for another day. On Saturday Ferguson has other concerns, with his squad returning from the international break fatigued, injured and, in some cases, without a match in two weeks; no wonder the Scot has little time for anything beyond the club game.
Indeed, the most poorly timed date in the international calendar may leave Ferguson without new acquisitions, Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, for the weekend clash with Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford.
van Persie played just half of Netherlands’ match with Hungary on Tuesday before withdrawing with a minor leg injury, while Kagawa missed Japan’s victory over Iraq during the week due to a sore back. Each is apparently fit, but with a Champions League match against Galatasary before the trip to Anfield, Ferguson may well be tempted to take no risks with either.
Elsewhere, United’s 70-year-old manager reported no fresh injury concerns, with Darren Fletcher set to join the match-day party, although the Scot’s participation in the match is thought unlikely. Fletcher has not played a first team game for United since November 2011.
Yet, it is with international travel that Ferguson is concerned most ahead of Wigan’s visit, with the core of his squad having departed across the world in the past fortnight.
“On the injury front, everyone’s fit, apart from the ones we know about – Jones and Smalling,” said Ferguson.
“Jones was a bad blow for us. He got an injury in training last weekend and he’ll be out for eight to 10 weeks. We expect Smalling to be back training by the end of the month. There’s a little bit of comfort in that sense, given our centre-back situation. But with Jonny [Evans] back we’re in a better position than we were a couple of weeks ago.
“You always have concerns about players travelling in international breaks – we had Chicharito, Valencia and Kagawa. They’ve all done it before, although with Shinji we don’t know exactly how he reacts to travelling back from long distances. Hopefully he’ll be okay.”
Ashley Young returns to the squad after missing England’s matches in the past week, while Ferguson will choose between the former Aston Villa man, Nani and Antonio Valencia in wide areas. Valencia’s lengthy trip to South America for two Ecuador matches in midweek may count against the 27-year-old, although much depends on the fitness or otherwise of van Persie and Kagawa, with Wayne Rooney unlikely to return this month.
“Wayne’s doing very well,” added Sir Alex.
“The scar’s healed well and he’s training terrifically. The issue now is when do we decide to bring him into the game? We have to take the medical advice on that one. He’s training very well but he’s not back in football training yet. All his work is being done with the physios at this point in time.”
Ferguson may choose to bring Paul Scholes into United’s midfield if Kagawa fails to make the game, with Tom Cleverley reprising his more advanced England role for United. The Reds’ manager must also choose between Anders Lindegaard and David de Gea behind a back-four that has leaked five goals this season.
Meanwhile, the few players remaining at Old Trafford – those not on international duty in the past week – were left to kick their heels with assistant manager Mike Phelan, with Ferguson landing in New York for Andy Murray’s US Open tennis final.
Indeed, old timers Rio Ferdinand, Scholes cand Ryan Giggs were among the few left at Carrington, and each could hit a milestone for the club against Wigan if selected. Ferdinand is approaching his 400th game in all competitions, Scholes his 700th, and for Giggs a 600th in the Premier League. None, it can be assumed, will have enjoyed training with the kids at a deserted Carrington.
“You really feel it when you’re not involved in international football,” admitted Ferdinand.
“You’re just sitting and waiting around thinking: ‘When is the next game coming?’ When the games are coming week in and week out, with two or three matches a week, this is the time when you enjoy it the most.”
Meanwhile, Roberto Martinez’ Wigan arrive having suffered just three defeats in the past 14 games – a sequence that included a devastating victory over United at the DW Stadium last April. United’s defeat to near-neighbours Wigan came as the Reds threw away an eight point lead during last season’s run-in.
But Martinez has also built a fine attacking side on a very limited budget, with the club’s best players poached by larger clubs each summer. Indeed, left-winger Victor Moses left for Chelsea in a £10 million deal during the latest transfer window, although the goalscorer from Wigan’s April victory, Shaun Maloney, remains at the club.
Wigan travel with few injury concerns, although the Latics may be without Jean Beausejour and Antolin Alcaraz. Midfielder James McArthur should be fit after recovering from a back injury.
Martinez can hardly afford any absentees given Wigan’s horrific record at Old Trafford since the Latics promotion to the nation’s top division.
“The last seven visits to Old Trafford have been a real uphill task for us; 24 goals conceded and one goal scored, from the penalty spot, tells its own story,” admitted Martinez.
It is a record that makes United firm favourites to secure a third Premier League win of the season. Yet, the clubs’ last meeting means few at Old Trafford will be counting the points secured just yet. That can wait until just before 5pm on Saturday afternoon.
Manchester United v Wigan Athletic – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 15 September 2012, 3pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Scholes, Carrick; Nani, Cleverley, Young; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Evans, Büttner, Powell, Giggs, Anderson, Kagawa, Fletcher, Valencia, Van Persie, Macheda, Hernández, Bébé.
Wigan (3-5-2): Habsi; Boyce, Caldwell, Ramis; Miyachi, McArthur, McCarthy, Maloney, Figueroa; Di Santo, Koné. Subs from: Pollitt, Crusat, Gómez, Jones, Watson, Fyvie, Stam, McManaman, Boselli, Redmond, López, Kiernan, Mustoe.
Referee: M Oliver
Assistants: S Ledger, C Breakspear
Fourth Official: P Dowd
Last 10: United 9, Wigan 1, draw 0
Overall: United 14, Wigan 1, draw 0
- Robin van Persie’s hat-trick against Southampton last week stole the points for United, but 45 per cent of the Dutchman’s 11 shots so far have been off target – unusually low for the normally accurate striker;
- Michael Carrick has been the focal point of United’s midfield once against this season, having received the ball 285 times this season according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Not only has Antonio Valencia provided the most crosses so far in the Premier League this season with 16, but the Ecuadorian has also made 55 successful passes in the attacking third of the pitch;
- Martinez was disappointed that his side could not close out the game against Stoke City two week’s ago, with the match ending 2-2 despite goals from Shaun Maloney and Franco di Santo looking to have secured the win for the Latics;
- Defender Ivan Ramis has produced some excellent defensive work so far this season, being successful with 90 per cent of his 10 tackles so far and conceding only two fouls;
- Gary Caldwell will be looking for more consistency given his mixed start to the season – despite conceding fouls in 45 per cent of his challenges, the defender has contributed 10 clearances and 21 interceptions according to the Index;
- Martinez will no doubt be pleased with the performances of Emmerson Boyce recently – the 33-year-old has provided 12 crosses this season already;
- Boyce also ranks second in the Index for top speed recorded by any player this season with 23.07 mph;
- Meanwile, Arouna Kone has shown a willingness to take the game to the opposition this season – he ranks first for total dribbles this season with seven.
Put a positive spin on it, some Manchester United supporters were heard to say after the Reds capitulated at Wigan Athletic on Wednesday night. ‘This night,’ they continued, ‘is a wake up call for the squad. They won’t blow it now.’ Indeed, the oldest cliché of them all – ‘trust in Sir Alex’ – was commonplace, as was talk of United’s five point Premier League lead. All true, but little more than a mask for the most calamitous performance of United’s season – and there have been some corkers.
From the horrific complacency, to the bizarre tactical mish-mash, this was a United performance with no equal this season, coming at a crucial time to boot. Hubris is for the fans though, not players, and certainly not United’s manager.
But few supporters can genuinely say this wasn’t coming, following sub-par performances against Norwich City, Fulham and Queens Park Rangers in recent weeks, when United could easily have dropped more points. That is to say little of the disastrous Europa League campaign.
No, it was depth not the manner of United’s performance that shocked.
Almost none of Sir Alex’ side, nor indeed the manager himself, escaped the DW Stadium with dignity or reputation intact. Old hands, in particular, had such poor nights that they have much to answer for. The experience Ferguson has based his challenge on displayed such immaturity that the manager may need to quickly recalibrate.
But for Manchester City’s own capitulation in recent weeks, it could have been a season defining – or ending – result.
This was no fluke though. The home side was so much sharper, hungrier, and more determined right from the start, with United’s players seemingly so complacent about an impending title win, that more than one supporter was compelled to ask whether Ferguson’s team was collectively inebriated. Drinking, perhaps, in the dressing room. Heavily. The fruity Belgium ale that leaves the imbibed seeing double, and nursing the mother of all hangovers the morning after.
“Wigan were the better team. We were second to every ball and only had one shot at goal,” admitted Ferguson, who was unusually forthright in his criticism.
“It was one of these off-nights you get. We have been on a great run. It has been tremendous and it has put us in a position where we can win the league, and we have to get over the disappointment of tonight.
“It was a disappointing performance throughout the game. We didn’t reach a level we have been used to in the last few months. A couple of months ago City were something like 5-1 on and we were well behind them in terms of goal difference and points, and we have to take some credit that we have got ourselves back into the race. It is important to win our home games now.”
But the players were only part of the problem of course. Ferguson, who has driven a squad with limitations beyond what many had predicted this season, must also share culpability for defeat against a team United had beaten 14 times in succession. After all, while the Scot’s decision to rest Paul Scholes was not unexpected, the tactical mess was entirely the manager’s doing.
Moreover, United’s inability to deal with Wigan’s 3-4-3 formation in the opening period was forgiveable, but Ferguson’s bizarre decision to deploy almost every forward and midfielder out-of-position, even after a round of substitutions, played a significant part in defeat.
Pity, then, that the United manager should focus not on the lessons learned, but the failings of others. Referee Phil Dowd, for example, took the brunt of Ferguson’s anger for not awarding United a second half penalty when Maynor Figueroa handled Phil Jones’ cross.
“Figueroa didn’t seem to handle it – he did handle it,” the United manager added.
“The thing is, if he had been close to Phil Jones then you would say you are not going to get that kind of decision but he was 15 yards away. That was disappointing. Sometimes you get the breaks and sometimes you don’t. Last Sunday we got a break [against QPR] and it evens itself out over the season. They talk about the big clubs getting all the big decisions but tonight we didn’t get one. I thought Phil Dowd had a disappointing night, I must say.”
It was a churlish line of thinking, especially when defender Jonny Evans escaped a second yellow for a late challenge that would have troubled many official’s books. The inevitable red and one-match ban that would have followed are spared, and Ferguson should be grateful for it. Nor too should United supporters forget Wigan’s opener, chalked off for an apparent foul on David de Gea.
But in truth the United coach will move on quickly from defeat and on to Aston Villa at Old Trafford this weekend, followed by Everton a week later. In that he will inevitably invoke another of the season’s tiresome clichés and call for ‘a response’, as the Scot has done following defeats to City, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle and repeatedly in Europe this season.
Indeed, each calamitous defeat has been labelled a wake-up call, with Ferguson calling for the inevitable response from his troops. It is, we are told, the United way. Cyncis might question the quality of the Scot’s squad.
Yet, after 11 domestic wins in the past 13 matches it is cantankerous to criticise. Games against Villa, Everton and Swansea at home mean United remains favourite to take a 20th domestic title. But defeat at Wigan could yet haunt the Reds. Imagine, if you will, a realistic scenario in which City beats United at Eastlands on 30 April, potentially leaving the Reds needing a victory over Sunderland on the final day to take the title.
Now that’s a jolt of reality United fans weren’t expecting.
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
Manchester United heads into the penultimate game of the year still carrying more than half-a-dozen injuries, but facing a Wigan Athletic side on the precipice. United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson received mixed injury news this week as the Reds aim for the Premier League summit against Roberto Martinez’ outfit, still glowing from the 5-0 victory over Fulham in midweek.
United faces a Wigan side still in the bottom three but in much improved form over the past month. Martinez’ side held Chelsea at home 10 days ago, and then Liverpool in midweek. Yet, absences notwithstanding, this is a fixture that United always wins, and with title rivals Manchester City facing a tricky fixture at West Bromwich Albion, United could top the league by Saturday evening.
Defender-cum-midfielder Phil Jones is likely to make the fixture despite coming off with a suspected fractured jaw against Fulham last week. The youngster will partner in-form Michael Carrick in central midfield once again.
But if United struck lucky with news that the 19-year-old’s injury was far less serious than initially diagnosed, the loss of Ashley Young to an ankle problem is another blow in a period when United has been hit hard by absences. Meanwhile, long-term victims Tom Cleverley, Anderson, and Michael Owen are unlikely to return until well into the new year.
Rio Ferdinand is again unlikely to feature, but Rafael da Silva could come into the side for his first game of the season.
“We have good news on Phil Jones: he should be okay for Monday,” confirmed Ferguson.
“He has some swelling in his jaw but there’s no break, no fracture, which is good news. We feared the worst because he lost his vision a bit in that period when he came back onto the field. Thankfully it’s good news.
“It’s not so good for Ashley Young. We’re still waiting on some of the bleeding to go away, which is quite extensive at the moment. It was a sore one so he’ll be out for a few weeks. Ashley was tripped as he went into the next tackle. He wasn’t positioned to go into that next tackle – he was half-falling at the time. The second tackle was a hard tackle – not a bad tackle – it was just the way he went into Ashley. He’s taken a real clump.”
“There’s not great news on the other ones – Michael, Tom and Ando are still on the sick list. But Rafael played in the Reserves last night, which will help him. As we get one back, we’re losing one. It’s not an easy spell for us but we just have to get on with it. The squad has handled the situation quite well. The form has been really good and I’m pleased with that. We’re scoring goals again, which is terrific.”
Despite the injuries this season Ferguson insists that he will not dip into the transfer market in the coming window. Blaming “blogs and Twitter” for the current concern about the state of United’s squad, the 69-year-old manager says that while money is available for transfers he does not believe his squad needs strengthening.
It is a contentious argument – one that supporters who witnessed last season’s humiliation against Barcelona, or indeed, the more recent calamitous defeat to FC Basel might contradict. In truth, few bar Ferguson believe that the manager’s state-of-mind is influenced by anybody but the club’s parsimonious owners. The word emanating from European clubs and agents is that United has no money to spend this winter.
“The criticism has been understandable,” added Ferguson.
“You lose a derby game 6-1, you’re knocked out of the Carling Cup and you lose to Basel, who aren’t a powerhouse. You can understand the criticism. But we show the resilience and determination to do something about it, each time it happens. That says a lot about the character of the team.
“All things being equal, I am perfectly happy with the strength of our squad in terms of depth, quality and age range,” Ferguson added in his programme notes for Monday’s game. “I will not be swayed by the endless tweets and blogs urging the club to get busy in the transfer market next month.
“As far as I am concerned I am marching perfectly in step, true to my beliefs and principles. While recruiting some of the world’s leading players can lift you into contention for honours, it doesn’t necessarily take you all the way, as I hope we will be able to demonstrate before the end of the season as other factors come into play.”
Ferguson’s stance will raise a few eyebrows, as will the Scot’s assertion that Carrick is now United’s pivotal player in a midfield that has struggled to dominate matches against superior opponents in recent seasons. But if United is to win a 20th domestic title in May then Ferguson is set to do so with his current squad, and victories over Wigan and others near the relegation zone are a must. United faces Wigan on Monday, followed by Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford on Ferguson’s birthday, New Year’s Eve.
“I watched Wigan versus Chelsea the other day and I thought Wigan were terrific,” added the Scot.
“It says a lot for Roberto Martinez – he continues to play good football irrespective of what position they’re in. We have a good record against Wigan but we won’t take anything for granted. We need to keep out foot on the pedal. I don’t think they’re a relegation team. They do well against the bigger teams. Last year, I think they lost heavily to Chelsea and, this season, they got a draw and could have won. I think Wigan will stay in the Premier League.”
Meanwhile, Wigan make the short trip to Old Trafford without Steve Gohouri, who has flu. Striker Hugo Rodallega faces a late fitness test – the Ecuadorian picked up an injury during Saturday’s draw with Chelsea and then featured, injured, against Liverpool.
For one United player the Latics’ visit is a special occasion. Antonio Valencia joined United a little over two years ago, and with Young set to remain on the sidelines for several weeks, is once again a key part of the Reds’ attack this season. The winger has found a renewed spell of form in recent matches after suffering a genuine confidence problem earlier in the season.
“They’ll always have a special place in my heart,” Antonio told United Review.
“I came here from abroad and I was taken in as one of the family from the first day. It was a real special group of players that we had in those few seasons there, and it was great to be a part of. I have only have gratitude and fond memories of my time there. I still speak regularly with Maynor Figueroa, who is a close friend of mine.
“I do look out for their scores. I know at the minute they’re by no means out of danger, but they’re working hard and they’ve picked up some decent results recently and let’s hope they can get up there and be fighting for ninth or tenth place.”
Few will expect that fight to begin against United on Boxing Day though. The Reds have won 13 of 13 encounters during the Premier League era. Indeed, goal difference and the opportunity to close the gap to title rivals City may well be on the agenda.
Manchester United versus Wigan Athletic, Premier League, Old Trafford, Monday 26 December 2011, 3pm.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Carrick, Nani; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fryers, Park, Pogba, Cole, Diouf, Giggs, Macheda, Berbatov.
Wigan (4-5-1): Al Habsi; Alcaraz, Caldwell, Stam, Figueroa; McCarthy, Gomez, Diame, Jones, Moses; Rodallega. Subs from: Watson, Sammon, Di Santo, Pollitt, Lopez, Crusat, Watson, McArthur.
- United hit five past Fulham in the last Premier League game, with the Reds out running Fulham by 64.75 miles to 64.53 miles;
- Michael Carrick has a tackles won rate of 96 per cent this season, and covered the most ground for the Reds with 6.56 miles against Fulham;
- Jonny Evans made six clearances in the game against Fulham, the highest of any player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index in the last round of games;
- Ryan Giggs was on target against Fulham, and continues his record of scoring in every Premier League season. Giggs has made just six shots at goal this season, but has contributed 174 passes in his opponent’s half, along with 10 dribbles and 10 crosses, leading to an impressive five assists. That’s an assist every 106 minutes, the second most frequent provider in the league;
- Meanwhile, Wigan gained a valuable point against Liverpool last week, with midfielder James McCarthy covering the most ground with 6.33 miles;
- Goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi was the Index’ busiest goalkeeper in the last round of games, making 11 saves.
Referee: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire)
Assistants: G Beswick, S Ledger
Fourth Official: A Taylor
Manchester United increased the lead over Arsenal at the head of the Premier League to four points with a routine win at the DW Stadium. Goals from Javier Hernández, Wayne Rooney and Fabio da Silva sealed the points at Wigan Athletic, although the heavy win fails to tell the story of a match in which United was matched for large periods. Indeed, with Wigan spurning two early chances and United scoring three very late goals, the result flatters the visitors.
But the match also ended in controversy, with Wigan manager Roberto Martinez insisting Rooney should have seen red for an early incident with midfielder James McCarthey. The United forward appeared to strike McCarthey in the eighth minute clash. While referee Mark Clattenburg awarded Wigan the free kick he chose not to issue any cards, with Sir Alex Ferguson preparing the way for a media witch hunt post-match.
Still, the win prepares United in the best possible way for the clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night. United, now 11 points clear of Manchester City and 12 of Chelsea, could open up a seven point gap in the Premier League with a win in London.
Yet, Ferguson will be thankful that goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar pulled off two great saves in the opening 10 minutes to keep United in the match and set up the victory.
“Wigan were terrific in the first 20 minutes and Van der Sar had to make some great saves,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“Vida and Smalling had to keep sticking their heads in to clear things. It was an uncomfortable time for us. We played really well in the second half and had some fantastic opportunities. We opened them up time and time again and could have scored more. But I’m happy with 4-0.”
Ferguson dropped Dimitar Berbatov to the bench after the striker’s goalless contribution at Marseille last week and ahead of the key Chelsea fixture, affording Hernández a rare United start. It proved an outstanding decision, with the Mexican scoring two very well taken goals.
However, Wigan started the brightest, despite losing on 12 previous occasions to United and conceding 37 goals in the process. Indeed, Martinez’ men crafted two superb chances in the opening minutes. In the best opportunity former Crystal Palace striker Victor Moses pounced on Paul Scholes’ wayward pass only for van der Sar to block the 21-year-old’s effort with less than 10 on the clock.
Yet, United took the lead much against the run of play on the quarter-hour, with Rooney exchanging passes with Nani, before the Portuguese set up Hernández to superbly clip in the opening goal at the near post. The Mexican’s instinct for goals is unsurpassed at the club, although his all round game in some way short of the standards Ferguson will demand.
But Wigan almost equalised as van der Sar again saved superbly, this time from McCarthey who ran on to Hugo Rodallega’s flick. Indeed, the hosts matched United for much of the opening period.
True to historical form with these two sides United ran away with the match after the break. Ferguson’s outfit scored three more but it could have easily been six in an open game. First, Nani slammed a slot against the post after smart work from Rooney and Darren Fletcher, before Maynor Figueroa again tested van der Sar and Moses fired over the bar.
It characterised a game in which both sides sought to attack but wasted chances, with Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling both excellent in the heart of United’s defence. Up front Rooney’s frustration grew but at least the former Evertonian sought to influence the game – a sign perhaps of a return to form, while Nani was ubiquitous if frustratingly inconsistent in his delivery at times.
Indeed, United took until the 75th minute to double the advantage with Hernández exchanging passes with Rooney before the 21-year-old Mexican slotted home. Further goals from Rooney – a side footer from substitute Berbatov’s simple square ball – and Fabio da Silva ensured a comfortable if flattering win.
Ferguson praised Hernández’ efforts – the Mexican has now contributed 14 goals, four of them winners, another four opening strikes. Moreover, four United wins in the Premier League away from Old Trafford have all come with goals from the £10 million signing.
“The boy is doing fantastic,” added Ferguson.
“They were two good finishes. If you watch the first one again he bends his run and spins across the defender to the front post to knock it in. He made a great run for the second and Wayne played him in nicely.”
But Sunday’s headlines are dominated by Rooney, with Ferguson accusing the media of wanting the player “hung,” while assistant manager Mike Phelan warned of a press witch hunt against the 25-year-old striker.
“I have had a chance to see it,” added the United boss.
“There is nothing in it. But, what will happen, the question has been asked and because it is Wayne Rooney the press will raise a campaign to get him hung by Tuesday or electrocuted or something like that.
“It is unbelievable. Watch the press. It will be interesting to see it.”
In that Ferguson is undoubtedly right, although there is little ground on which to defend Rooney who – whether deliberate or accidental – caught McCarthey in the face while running past the Wigan midfielder.
The FA may indeed act before Tuesday match with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – a three match ban is possible if the governing body charges the player with violent conducted. However, the FA also has clear rules on discipline, normally refusing to take retrospective action against a player where the official has both seen and punished the incident on the field of play.
Wigan – 451 – Al Habsi; Gohouri, Alcaraz, G Caldwell, Figueroa; McCarthy, Watson (Gomez 89), N’Zogbia (McArthur 89), Diame, Moses (Di Santo 64); Rodallega
United – 442 – Van der Sar; O’Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Scholes (Gibson 77), Carrick, Nani (Fabio da Silva 85); Rooney; Hernández (Berbatov 76).
Attendance – 18,100
Man of the Match – Nani
Possession: Wigan 40% – 60% United
Attempts: 10 – 14
On Target: 4 – 9
Corners: 8 – 4
Fouls: 12 – 11
Ryan Giggs returns to the Manchester United squad as Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit seeks a four point Premier League lead. With Arsenal in Carling Cup action, Ferguson’s outfit could extend its advantage at Wigan Athletic on Saturday. Giggs returns along with Michael Owen for the fixture, which United won 5-0 last season. However, the good news is tempered by confirmation that defender Rio Ferdinand will miss games against both Wigan this weekend and Chelsea on Tuesday night.
Ferdinand’s absence, along with Jonny Evans, means Chris Smalling will continue in the heart of United’s defence. The 20-year-old former Fulham defender earned deserved praise for his performance against Marseille in the Champions League. Indeed, Smalling will experience an accelerated learning curve over the next week, with two key domestic fixtures.
However, Ferguson will be without Ji-sung Park, Anderson and Antonio Valencia for the short trip across Lancashire, although the latter could be back in March after the leg-break he suffered in September.
“Nothing much has changed on the injury front,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“We’re trying to get Ryan [Giggs] fit for the Wigan game, and Michael Owen is back training and could be available. Rio and Jonny Evans should both be back for Liverpool next weekend. Ji-sung Park is still two weeks away. Anderson will probably be back in three weeks, he’s back in Portugal now and we’ll have to see how he progresses.
“Antonio is doing well in training but it’s difficult to assess when he’ll be back. We have to make a decision on when to play him in terms of his own confidence after being out for so long. He could be back in two weeks hopefully.”
Ferguson is likely to keep both top scorer Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney in the side, although neither stood out at Marseille during the week. The Scot must decide whether to retain the 4-5-1 system that successfully stifled the French champions on Wednesday night or deploy Rooney in a more central role.
Certainly, the 69-year-old will insist his team create more chances that in Stade Velodrome, with United desperate for the points in the title race. Ferguson’s outfit leads Arsenal by a single point heading in the weekend programme. Indeed, the Scot things that Arsène Wenger’s side is the only realistic challengers this season, with Manchester City and Chelsea falling away in recent weeks.
This despite John Terry’s bizzare assertion that United is feeling the pressure heading into next Tuesday’s tie with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Should United win on Saturday, Ferguson’s side will pull 12 points clear of last season’s champions.
“Arsenal or ourselves will win it. You come towards the end and there are always two teams who break away. That’s the way it’s looking at the moment,” added Ferguson
“But it won’t be easy [for Chelsea] to come back from that kind of points deficit. Maybe 82 points will win the league. We think we can gather that total from the games we’ve got. You don’t care where you get them.”
Ferguson may recall Paul Scholes ahead of Darron Gibson, who did little to impress in France, although key fixtures coming up against Chelsea and Liverpool take precedence. However, the United manager conceded all of his players want to play, with the run-in now beginning in earnest.
United faces five key fixtures against Wigan, Chelsea, Liverpool, Marseille and a potential cup-tie with Arsenal over the next fortnight.
“My experience is that players want to play in all the games now, that is the problem,” Ferguson added.
“It is a nightmare picking teams at this stage of the season because you are leaving good players out of some very big games. “This season I am helped a little bit because I have two or three injuries at the moment, so my options are condensed. All the players who are going to be playing all the time are delighted at that.”
Meanwhile, Roberto Martinez’ relegation threatened team could face United without Emmerson Boyce, Callum McManaman and on-loan Tom Cleverley. Boyce has a hamstring problem, McManaman a gashed leg and Cleverley is ineligible to play against his parent club.
It’s a foreboding problem for Martinez, whose side has lost all 12 encounters with United. The Reds have averaged three goals a game in those fixtures and conceded just four times. And with Wigan set to face four of the Premier League’s top five in the coming weeks, the drop is a realistic outcome for the Lancashire club this season.
Still, Ferguson refused to concede that United will win the tie easily – and there is genuine concern in the Old Trafford camp at the state of the relaid DW pitch.
“It’s be a difficult game, Wigan are a team who play fantastic football, but this time of season they’re all difficult,” concluded Ferguson.
“It’s important that we keep our momentum going because the team who is most consistent will win the league.”
In that United has been a model of regularity, losing just once in the Premier League this season. Ferguson’s outfit has also performed with consistent mediocrity away from the safety of Old Trafford. If the Reds are to complete a 19th domestic title in May that will have to change.
Wigan – 451 – Al Habsi; Gohouri, Gary Caldwell, Alcaraz, Figueroa; N’Zogbia, Watson, McCarthy, Diame, Moses; Rodallega. Subs from: Pollitt, Di Santo, Steven Caldwell, Gomez, Stam, McArthur, Thomas, McManaman.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Brown, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, O’Shea, Obertan, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King, Carrick.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistant referees: Mick McDonough & Andy Newbold
Fourth official: Anthony Taylor
Wigan – LDDWDL
United – WWLWWD