Hargreaves 'can fill void left by Ronaldo'

Ferguson backs midfielder to provide dead-ball threat when he returns next month
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The Independent Football

Manchester United cannot continue to rely so heavily on Ryan Giggs and are in need of Owen Hargreaves, a player whose return will bring a dead-ball ability second only to Cristiano Ronaldo in world football, their manager said yesterday.

Though Ronaldo's dead ball strikes were less frequent in his last United season, successful free-kicks have been conspicuous by their absence since he left for Real Madrid and Giggs has been the sole provider. To go with his superb equaliser at White Hart Lane, there was his deflected effort in the win against Wolfsburg in midweek.

"We are not going to have Ryan every game so to have someone who can score from a free-kick or deliver a set piece will be a bonus for us," Ferguson reflected. "One area where [Hargreaves] may help us is that outside Ronaldo I don't think there is a better set-piece deliverer of the ball than Owen. He has a great asset at free-kicks which you might look upon as minimal but I look at it as an added detail to a football team. Ronaldo can get you maybe three of four goals from free-kicks and we are searching for that at the moment."

Hargreaves' sublime strike that clinched the vital Premier League win over Arsenal in April 2008 is a case in point – Arsène Wenger's side were expecting Ronaldo, standing over the ball with Hargreaves, to take the kick until the England international curled it away to Jens Lehmann's right. Free-kicks are something Wayne Rooney does not offer, despite his enthusiasm. "He fancies it, he is optimistic," Ferguson said, with some affection.

In observations which may be in part designed to nurture the 28-year-old Hargreaves' belief that he can again become a part of United's core – some at United believe his problems may be mental as well as physical – Ferguson said the signs are "good" for a November comeback. Though Darren Fletcher has eclipsed Michael Carrick as a midfield talent, Anderson continues to labour and United do look a defensive midfielder short. "Owen can play centre-midfield, he can play wide right or right-back and there are a lot of positions you can play him in," Ferguson said. "He has had absolutely no reaction at all from the operations."

Paul Scholes also provided great value in the 2-0 win at Stoke City last weekend. "Have you ever seen a better stat than 78 passes and only four not completed?" Ferguson purred, with justification. "I would need to check that." But Scholes cannot be perpetually water-carrying either.

Ferguson had the kind of effusive praise for Steve Bruce, whose ambitious Sunderland side are at Old Trafford this evening, that is never to be found in his discussions of Mark Hughes. "There are some unsung heroes who don't get the same plaudits and Steve is one," he said.

Bruce, whose side are eighth, finally has the chance and the resources to cause his old mentor worries, with Ferguson especially impressed with the defenders Paulo da Silva and John Mensah. There was a customary oversight for Hughes in Ferguson's assessment of whether the league was now settling down along the usual lines. "It is obvious that the four teams who have been at the top for a number of years are [not] going to disappear, and it is important to remember that," said Ferguson, who has no injury worries and has assured Ben Foster he will return in goal after missing the midweek Champions League win over Wolfsburg. The narrative might change if Bruce, who has never won at Old Trafford, breaks the habit of a managerial lifetime tonight.