MANCHESTER UNITED tackle Wigan at Old Trafford tonight with Alex Ferguson admitting he would have gladly accepted being two points adrift of Chelsea in the depth of his defensive injury crisis.
Victory against the Latics will get United precisely to that point in the Barclays Premier League title race.
And with Gary Neville set to join Nemanja Vidic and Wes Brown in Ferguson’s squad, there is now light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel for the Red Devils.
The relief for Ferguson is that Chelsea, despite their victory over Fulham on Monday, have not managed to surge clear as he has wrestled with an injury crisis that forced him to play Michael Carrick in central defence for almost a month, with Darren Fletcher joining him in the back four.
“I would definitely have taken being two points behind the leaders,” said Ferguson.
“When you look at all the defenders we have had out injured. It has been a key period to try and get through it.
“It is impossible to play midfield players at centre-back in this league. You might get away with it once. But not twice.”
In fact, United’s struggles, which included a home defeat to Aston Villa and a pre-Christmas hammering at Fulham, only tell part of the story of an extraordinary month.
At one point on Monday, it appeared Ferguson’s team would be trying to secure top spot against Wigan before Chelsea eventually scrambled to a narrow win over Fulham that edged them five points in front of the chasing pack.
“It is so tight,” said Ferguson. “When you see it grouped up like that the teams further down think they can do it. Big squads do help but look how we suffered by having all the defenders out.’’
Neville’s availability after a groin strain suffered against West Ham at the start of the month should allow Ferguson to field an experienced back four for the first time in six weeks.
Edwin van der Sar will be missing though after being placed on indefinite compassionate leave.
Van der Sar’s wife Annemarie is still in hospital after suffering a brain haemorrhage on December 23 and Ferguson has told the 39-year-old, who has yet to decide whether to accept a one-year contract offer with the Old Trafford side or come out of retirement to feature in Holland’s World Cup campaign, to remain in his homeland, where he had travelled for the festive period.
Ferguson said: “Annemarie had a problem over in Holland a week ago and has been admitted to hospital. That is the best place for her to be.
“I have told Edwin to stay over there. The best thing is for him to be with his wife. Hopefully she will make a good recovery.”
Tomasz Kuszczak will continue in goal and until the uncertainty over Van der Sar’s situation is clarified, Ben Foster will remain at United too, which will not do much for his chances of going to the World Cup with England since he has not had any first-team action for a month.
There is better news for another of Fabio Capello’s men though as Wayne Rooney bounced back to form with a bang at Hull on Sunday.
“Wayne was fantastic on Sunday. That was the Wayne Rooney we know,” said Ferguson. “That is the kind of form we are hoping for because when he is playing like that, he is hard to handle.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved