In public, Manchester United have been unperturbed by the eye problem that has left Paul Scholes with blurred vision since 28 December but privately they must harbour grave concerns for the former England international, who was yesterday ordered to take a complete break from football until April.
The news that Scholes will not play again this season - he cannot take part in training and would therefore lack the necessary fitness required to return in May - represents a major worry for Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager who is bereft of midfield options and could be without John O'Shea for the next six weeks after the Republic of Ireland international fractured two ribs in the FA Cup third-round replay against Burton Albion.
Ferguson had maintained that the blow to the head sustained by Scholes against Birmingham City was not serious and lambasted reports to the contrary, although he did reveal on Friday that a renowned eye specialist had failed to diagnose the 31-year-old's problem and that a second opinion would be sought this week. In a statement released by the club yesterday, it was confirmed: "Paul Scholes has a medical condition affecting the vision in his right eye. It is not a football-related injury. This has been confirmed by a number of specialists who have all agreed that he needs to rest for a period of three months."
United are not at liberty to disclose the nature of Scholes' condition due to medical confidentiality, but there will be genuine fears about his long-term future in the game if his vision has not improved by April. The loss of the midfielder, who had begun to recapture his influential form prior to the game at St Andrew's, increases Ferguson's problems in the weakest department of the United team, but will not tempt club officials to sanction further spending in the transfer market this month.
Ferguson has spent £11.7m on improving his defence this month despite ongoing failure to replace Roy Keane and strengthen an ageing midfield. United's stance on targeting high-calibre additions in the summer has not altered as a result of Scholes' problem and, though the remote possibility of a loan signing remains, they are likely to maintain the pursuit of second place and domestic honours with a depleted midfield.
That quest continues tonight when, without the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo and possibly the injured Alan Smith, they play Blackburn Rovers in the second leg of their Carling Cup semi-final. Ryan Giggs and O'Shea formed a makeshift central midfield pairing on Sunday but now even that partnership has been denied Ferguson after it was revealed the latter had fractured ribs four days earlier against Burton and then aggravated the injury against Liverpool. "John has two fractured ribs and will be out for between four to six weeks," said a United spokesman yesterday.
"I think they are still missing Roy Keane," said Blackburn's Steven Reid yesterday, "but then any midfield would miss a player of his ability and what he gives to a team. They are still the second-best team in the country and they won't be taking a semi-final lightly." That sentiment was confirmed by Wayne Rooney, who is still searching for the first winners' medal of his career and was involved in a mêlée with Robbie Savage and Alan Smith in the first leg that finished 1-1 at Ewood Park a fortnight ago. "The first leg was very physical. We wanted to play football, but Blackburn tried to stop us doing that," Rooney said. "But we knew what to expect, because they're a very tough side."
The 20-year-old striker added: "It was a huge disappointment to lose the FA Cup final last year. This club is all about winning trophies and that's what we want to do. We're in sight of the Carling Cup final and we want to get there. Now we're this close, we want to go all the way and win the competition."
Manchester United (probable): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Evra; Rooney, Fletcher, Giggs, Richardson; Saha, Van Nistelrooy.
Blackburn Rovers (probable): Friedel; Neill, Nelsen, Khizanishvili, Gray; Reid, Savage, Tugay, Pedersen; Bellamy, Kuqi.