Manchester United yesterday flew to face the champions of Germany with just two fit defenders – one of whom is the teenage son of chief executive David Gill. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson revealed last night that the club had 13 players injured, and was forced to take five members of the club's youth-team squad.
Of those injured, eight are defenders, leaving Patrice Evra and Oliver Gill, a 19-year-old who has yet to feature in a senior game, the only specialist members of his back-four. And with the busy Christmas fixture schedule looming, some of the injury problems show no sign of abating. Yesterday both Jonny Evans and John O'Shea were ruled out until the new year at the earliest and Rio Ferdinand continues to be troubled by calf and back problems that show no immediate sign of clearing up.
Further forward, neither Wayne Rooney nor Dimitar Berbatov, who both finished Saturday's 4-0 victory over West Ham, travelled to Germany with Ferguson saying they, too, had picked up injuries. Some of the names on the passenger list; Oliver Norwood, Matty James and Cameron Stewart, would be familiar only to those aficionados of Manchester United youth-team fixtures.
Given that CSKA Moscow are relying on United to take at least a point from Wolfsburg to give them a chance of qualification by beating Besiktas, there would have been Russian protests had Rooney and Berbatov remained at home when fit. Ryan Giggs, who at 36 cannot be expected to play more than once a week, has been rested.
Such are United's defensive problems, they have invited the promising 20-year-old Norwegian centre-half Even Hovland for a trial. Hovland plays for Sogndal, but missed the majority of the recent domestic season due to a broken leg. "We have accepted a trial since it's good for Even," Sogndal director Trond Fylling said. "Even has been out for large parts of the season and needs training more than a holiday."
"Yes we have one fit defender," Ferguson laughed. "Manchester United are always the first to try something so we will try playing one in defence." Whoever lines up alongside Evra, who was believed to be reluctant to play centre-half, will face perhaps the Bundesliga's most formidable strike partnership in the giant Edin Dzeko and the Brazilian Grafite, who like to be fed with crosses.
Michael Carrick, who stepped into the role comfortably following Gary Neville's injury at Upton Park, will be one candidate to play centre-back with either Darren Fletcher or Gill alongside him. Right-back is another problem; Ji Sung Park could, at a pinch, fill in a position he has not occupied since his university days in South Korea.
Because of his background, most attention will focus on Gill, who has combined his studies at Manchester Grammar School with the city's other great educational institute, the Manchester United Academy.
At Manchester Grammar, whose most famous sporting graduate is the former England cricket captain Michael Atherton, he played alongside Bryan Robson's son, Ben, in central midfield before making central defence a speciality. Most professional footballers only need a couple of GCSEs to be labelled "The Prof". Gill has three AS levels, two at A grade.
"He always looked a good player because he was two years younger than the age of the teams he was playing in," Robson recalled. "Manchester Grammar used him in big cup games and he looked a decent player."
"It doesn't concern me [that he is the chief executive's son]," Ferguson said. "If he is good enough, he plays, if he is not, he won't. That has always been the case at United. I had a son who played for me for four or five years and Darren was always treated the same as everyone else.
"This is Oliver's first years as a professional; before he was combining education and training but at 19 he has decided to take a big step forward in professional football and we admire him for that. Before, he was rakish, gangly and lacked strength. Now his physique is starting to come together."
Robson, who was occasionally pressed into service to cover holes in United's back four, said it was better to put midfielders into defence than push defenders up front. "If you are a centre-half and go into midfield, there is a big difference because, suddenly, you have your back to the play. But with the defensive qualities of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher – and I think he could play centre-half as well as right-back – it would not really be a problem to them. The key to this squad is its flexibility; you saw that at West Ham."
These past two weeks have been a long examination of the quality of some young players in whom Ferguson passionately believes. If their display against Besiktas was marred by nervousness in front of goal, there was none when seeing off Tottenham at Old Trafford to reach the Carling Cup semi-final. However, facing the champions of Germany on their own pitch counts as an ordeal – even at a club whose short-term future in the Champions League is guaranteed.