For a side often competing for trophies on four fronts year after year, a free weekend is a luxury rarely afforded to Manchester United, but that is precisely what Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will be experiencing this weekend. Belittled in the FA Cup third round by old foes Leeds United in January, coupled with the inability to re-arrange a fixture against another side out of the competition, it means that United’s players will be provided with two days off following Wednesday night’s draining display and will be back in training on Saturday before the trip to Northern Italy.
When questioned about the weekend off Sir Alex directed a slight criticism towards the FA by stating that AC Milan have been provided with the opportunity of playing their Serie A match on Friday night but it is only down to United’s own making that they have a rest before the huge Champions League encounter. Ferguson is clearly envious of the Italian Football Federation’s (FIGC) willingness to move fixtures to accommodate their sides Champions League encounters.
The Scot is clearly of the attitude that the FA should be proud of what has been achieved in Europe’s premier competition by English sides over the last five or so seasons and should do their best to assist their progression, rather than hampering it with too many fixtures. How this would ever be achieved considering the current fixture demands remains to be seen. Ferguson is clearly just enjoying another swipe, however redundant, towards an FA seemingly becoming increasingly distant from its premier club side. This relationship may improve slightly however, due to Rio Ferdinand being named England captain and United withdrawing his second appeal against his suspension from the recent Hull game, but is one which will never be rosy.
Ferdinand is in the middle of his ban but will be available for the Milan game and is expected to slot into the back four in place of either Jonny Evans or Wes Brown. There is even talk of Nemanja Vidic recovering from injury and staking a claim for a start against the Serie A side. Whether this is a desirable situation is a question Ferguson will be studying very acutely. Vidic is often poor when immediately coming back from injury with United’s visit to the San Siro in 2007 a stark reminder of the Serbian’s inability when not fully match fit. United will need to be watertight to fend off an improving Milan side with Ronaldinho seemingly recapturing some of his form of yesteryear with a fantastic hat-trick against Siena, meaning it is likely that only Ferdinand will return.
United will need all their experience in the first leg of this encounter as they tend to struggle at the San Siro against the Rossoneri, having not progressed against the Milanese side in the two most recent two-legged encounters. Much of this experience will be provided by their 39-year-old goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar – a player who achieved his first Champions League success with Ajax against Milan. Van der Sar has been in exceptional form since his return from a forced absence due to personal circumstances, and he has needed to be as United have been without their first choice back four for all of the games he has featured in since his return.
The Dutchman may not have made too many remarkable saves but he has instilled confidence in the men in front of him. This has enabled United to go into tough Premier League encounters – Arsenal away for example – without their first choice centre-half partnership, yet still pull off a fantastic win. A player often criticised in the Italian media due to an unsuccessful spell with the Old Lady of Italian football, Juventus, van der Sar will be keen to prove his credentials once again at the expense of Milan.
If experience is what is required against Milan then the loss of Ryan Giggs for both encounters due to a fracture in his right arm is a huge blow for United. Giggs has been on the periphery of things of late but earned a start against Villa, but unfortunately he didn’t last the full 90 minutes due to the injury to his arm. Throughout his career, Giggs has always been the scourge of United’s Italian opposition, often destroying Juventus with his weaving runs from the left wing and would have been a weapon either from the bench or from the start for a United side likely to look to hit the Italian’s on the break.
Whether United will stick with Nani to provide this spark on the break following his impetuous antics against Villa or opt for Antonio Valencia after his performance in the second half at Villa Park, is a question which seems much less clear-cut than it was following the recent match at the Emirates. What is clear, however, is that Ferguson and his assistant Mike Phelan will be using the extra training sessions over the weekend to asses all the options provided to them and will ensure that their side goes into this fixture with a freshness not always felt at this stage of the season.
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