Alex Ferguson happy to snap at heels of Chelsea
Manchester United tackle Wigan at Old Trafford tonight with Sir 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 a problem 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, tell only part of the story of an extraordinary month.
At one point yesterday, 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 a chasing pack that includes Arsenal, Tottenham, Villa and also Manchester City, whose new manager Roberto Mancini claimed the Blues were gunning for the title after a hat-trick of wins over the Christmas period.
“It is so tight,” said Ferguson.
“When you see it grouped up like that the teams further down think they can do it.
“Sometimes the optimism is not realistic but people should feel like that about their chances because the league has lacked a consistent team that has won a few matches in a row.
“The vital answer to it is this —can you keep all your players fit?
“Big squads do help but look how we suffered by having all the defenders out.
“Teams who want to do well need a good nucleus of players to work with. Then you can pick your strongest possible team every week.”
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.
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.
Rooney scored his 14th goal of the season to put the Red Devils ahead, then created two more after his mistake had allowed the Tigers to level at the KC Stadium.
It was a welcome revival after a couple of lethargic performances from the 24-year-old, one that his manager is hoping will continue.
“Wayne was fantastic on Sunday. That was the Wayne Rooney we know,” said Ferguson.
“He had a quiet spell for two or three matches but he was explosive at Hull. He was a constant threat.
“That is the kind of form we are hoping for because when he is playing like that, he is hard to handle.”