Manchester United may be able to add Antonio Valencia earlier than expected to a side whose return to the top of the Premier League has coincided with a resurgence in their attacking options.
The 25-year-old's season initially seemed over after he suffered a fracture of the tibia and fibula at Old Trafford against Rangers in September, with Sir Alex Ferguson putting his return date as February at the earliest. But Valencia has been able to dispense with the medical boot he has been wearing, walk without support and start basic exercises and doctors are delighted with the way the leg is healing. Valencia, whose contribution from the right was critical to Wayne Rooney's 34 goals last season, may be back by mid-February or even earlier if he maintains his progress.
Alongside the rehabilitation of Rooney, Valencia's recuperation bodes well for the second half of United's campaign, though it will be to younger and less utilised players that Ferguson will look in the Carling Cup quarter-final at West Ham United tonight. Few have more to prove than goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak, who has appeared only three times this season and who has grounds to feel that his hopes of a career at Old Trafford have gone, with Anders Lindegaard signing for £3.5m.
Kuszczak is in his sixth season at United but has made only 54 appearances. He let his frustrations show last season when he suggested that Edwin van der Sar was unwilling to help him develop. In September he admitted he could follow the former United keeper Ben Foster in seeking a move.
"The years are going by and I will be 29 after this season. I want to play," he said. Kuszczak has had his moments – the Pole's performance for United in the third-round Carling Cup win at Scunthorpe was spectacular, without which United might not be in the tournament. But Ferguson was absent that night and the suspicion is that Kuszczak has never entirely dispelled images of the moment his error and sending-off helped Portsmouth eliminate United from the FA Cup in 2008.
Another player who needs a major display tonight is Darron Gibson, whose contribution in last season's Carling Cup suggested he might be the coming man. The 23-year-old has not started a league game this season.
West Ham, dire in a 3-0 Old Trafford defeat in August, would be dealt a huge boost with a win. But Avram Grant's priorities lie at Sunderland on Sunday and though returning captain Scott Parker was integral to the 3-1 win over Wigan Athletic on Saturday, he seems unlikely to start tonight after failing to fully recover from a chest infection.
West Ham United (probable, 4-3-3): Green; Reid, Tomkins, Upson, Ben-Haim; Behrami, Kovac, Barrera; Obinna, Cole, Piquionne.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Brown, J Evans, Smalling, Fabio; Bebe, Gibson, Fletcher, Obertan; Hernandez, Macheda.