Domestic club football returns to Old Trafford this weekend, when Lancashire opponents Wigan Athletic make the short trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United.
Wigan proved one of United’s numerous fatal stumbling blocks for the Red Devils last season, as they conspired against themselves to drop what looked like a championship winning lead in the title run in. A disastrous result for United, it was a shot in the arm for the struggling Wigan side, who had failed to record even a single point against United since their promotion to the Premier League in 2006, who pulled off another relegation miracle under manager Roberto Martinez to avoid the drop once more and extending their stay in the Premier League to an impressive sixth consecutive season.
The situation is nowhere near as drastic for either side just yet, but United will be hoping to make it three wins from three by returning to winning ways against their local opponents. They may have to do so without a number of key players, most notably two of the off-season additions, with Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa both suffering injuries whilst on international duty. Shinji Kagawa is almost certainly out of contention as he suffers from a back complaint, with many reports running quotes taken from the attacking midfielder before his return to Manchester following his time with Japan, in which he failed to prove his fitness ahead of their World Cup qualifier with Iraq. The Japanese international said:
“I felt a twinge in the back when I was on the ball during training. I had some treatment but didn’t want to risk causing the team trouble. I don’t think it will keep me out for long.”
It might not keep him out for long, but it looks set to keep him out for at least this weekend, whilst Sir Alex will have to make a call on Robin Van Persie. Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal seemed to believe the injury was nothing serious, but Sir Alex might still view this as a good opportunity to grant Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez some match time up front . Van Gaal stated:
“We took off Robin for precautionary measures.
“It doesn’t seem to be too serious, but you never know. We didn’t want to take any risks.”
Jonny Evans is also a doubt, whilst rumours suggest that Alex Buttner could be set for his first team debut after impressing Sir Alex in the few run outs he has had with the U-21 side. Darren Fletcher has also gone a long way to proving his fitness, edging closer to a shock return to first team football, after competing in another game for the U-21′s in midweek.
One might imagine that Sir Alex is not the happiest with the state of his side following another poor international break for United, and they are concerns that Roberto Martinez has voiced, stating that it is unfair on the clubs who have to count the wounded and still prepare for a league fixture in less than 48 hours of the players return:
“I don’t like the international break, I’ve said it many, many times. This is another example. We’ve got 48 hours to go to one of the biggest games of our league competition and we don’t even know what kind of squad we can count on. That’s for ourselves, that’s for Manchester United.
“As a whole, I don’t think that’s a healthy position for any team to be in when trying to put on a good display for the fans in what we consider to be the best league in the world.
“It’s something that you need to adapt to but it doesn’t make it right. We want our players to play for their countries because it’s great for us as football club and it’s great for the players as it’s a unique experience, but it’s an area we need to look after the players and understand if you’re going to fly for 10 hours, 48 hours before a proper game in the Premier League, it can’t be the right preparation.”
Roberto Martinez is also worried about the impact former Wigan loan star Tom Cleverley could have on the fixture, showering the youngster in praise after another fine start to a Premier League season, in which has risen to prominence not only for Manchester United, but England as well. His performance against Ukraine, in which he missed two good opportunities to score, has seen the young midfielder go from hero to zero in a typically short space of time with the English media and fans, but Martinez fears that might just spur Cleverley onto bigger and better things, starting this Saturday:
“If anything, Tom is going to want to be better in the next game. He has already shown he is a top player. You can judge players not by the chances they miss, but whether they are prepared to go back into those situations to get a scoring opportunity again.
“I guarantee Tom will get into those positions time and time again. He’s a tremendous example of the future of English football. He is mature beyond his years and can play in many positions. The role he played for England was completely different to the one he plays for Manchester United, which is different to the one he played for us. Sometimes it can be a negative to be able to play in a number of positions. Some players are a jack of all trades but not special in any of them.
“Tom is special in what he does, while understanding other roles within the team just as well. But if you were to ask what is his best position, I’d say central midfield. I think that Manchester United always saw him as that – even while he was here.”
Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa have returned to Manchester with injuries which though not thought to be particularly serious will still seemingly be enough to keep them out of action this weekend. Wayne Rooney has, according toGoal.com returned to training, though is obviously still a couple of weeks from a first team return. Jonny Evans is still feeling discomfort in his ankle, though he did play a full game for North Ireland in midweek. Patrice Evra disappointed for France, whilst Tom Cleverley completed his initiation into the English international team by going from the coming saviour of English football to the subject of national ire in the space of a week.
If there was a silver lining, it was Javier Hernandez’s match winning performance for Mexico, in which he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win in World Cup qualifying, as Danny Welbeck also put in a good shift for England in the Ukraine game as a substitute. United’s unlikely strike pairing could have a great chance to stake their claim for greater first team involvement despite having Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, and the possibility of playing with a lone striker, seemingly working against them. Van Persie’s injury might not be that bad, but given United’s schedule is set to get a lot more hectic with the start of Champions League football this week, it might be wise to allow the Dutchman to recover fully before risking him.
Welbeck and Hernandez have played very few games up front together, with the two usually vying for who would partner Wayne Rooney last season, so there may be some teething problems, but the two players certainly have all the makings of a decent strike partnership. Hernandez’s preference for sitting on the shoulder of the last defender should provide Danny Welbeck with plenty of space around the 18 yard box to work his magic, and Welbeck’s all round quality on the ball should allow Hernandez to concentrate on what he does best; scoring goals.
There is another blossoming partnership behind the strike duo too which could get another chance to develop should Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley get the nod once more. There were a few teething problems for the midfield duo against Southampton, but it is an option that is worth allowing the time to develop properly. United have a number of options in any case, should Sir Alex opt for a more familiar pairing of Cleverley and Anderson or indeed Carrick and Scholes, with the veteran midfielder well rested and in good form following his game changing substitute appearance against Southampton two weeks ago.
Antonio Valencia has offered no reason to be dropped, and should start the game on the right wing as expected, but there is less consensus over who will start on the left. Personally, I don’t think there is any getting around the fact that Nani is the best option we have. Ashley Young could be fit after recovering from injury, offering a good alternative, whilst Ryan Giggs days of flying down the left wing seem all but over. Of course, with rumours surrounding Nani’s happiness at the club, and the possibility of a rift between Sir Alex and the Portuguese winger, Nani’s obvious ability doesn’t necessarily mean he will be picked.
At the back, Alexander Buttner could come into the side to make his first team debut, after a couple of good performances with the U-21s. I personally feel like Patrice Evra has had a good start to the season, and criticisms that have come his way seem born out of lazy cliches as opposed to anything really wrong with his game. The lack of an out-and-out winger on the left against Fulham and the majority of the Southampton game meant that attacking, as well as defensive, duties seemed to fall solely on the marauding full back. Occasionally that meant he would get caught out of position, but that is part and parcel of the game United encourage their full backs to play, and is not necessarily a problem as long as the rest of the team works to help cover. In any case, Sir Alex might just feel that the game against Wigan is a good opportunity to grant Evra some rest and blood Buttner into the first team.
Rafael is the only real option at right back, and should get another chance to make the role his own in the absence of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones who have also played there. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are both well rested given their lack of involvement in international fixtures over the last week, but are probably still a few games away from being at their best. The duo will be keen to improve United’s miserly defensive record this season, in which they have failed to keep a clean sheet and conceded five goals in a mere three games.
Wigan have rarely provided much competition at Old Trafford, but they should not be underestimated, as last season demonstrated. They have lost Hugo Rodallega and Victor Moses they have brought in a talented forward in the shape of Arouna Kone. Shaun Maloney can also cause problems, whilst Ryo Miyaichi also offers some promise. Wigan certainly have their back to the walls, but they have put in a number of promising performances this season, particularly at St. Mary’s where they beat Southampton 2-0, which they backed up with a resolute showing to draw 2-2 against Stoke City.
United are undoubtedly favourites however, and even with all their injury problems, the depth in quality they boast should mean that there is enough quality on the park to see off the challenge of Robert Martinez’s men.