Sir Alex Ferguson has conceded that 21-year-old Chris Smalling lacks big-game experience ahead of a likely role partnering Nemanja Vidic in today's Manchester derby, but says he perceives some of Rio Ferdinand's traits in the young player.
Ferguson said that Smalling will start today because a calf injury will keep Ferdinand out for two weeks, with Jonny Evans also sidelined by an ankle problem sustained training with Northern Ireland. United's preparations were further hit by a hamstring injury sustained in the final minutes of training yesterday by Park Ji-Sung, who has only just returned to Old Trafford from the Asian Cup. The problem is likely to keep the South Korean out today and may mean Ferguson will turn to Ryan Giggs.
A back problem kept Smalling from the England Under-21s in midweek but Ferguson is ready to deploy him for his biggest test. "He's quick, he's a good user and passer of the ball. He's on similar lines to Rio, who came into first-team football when he was 17," the manager said.
Ferguson would venture no further on to the prickly territory of Manchester City than to say they were in "a challenging position" five points behind United. However, if there is a measure of the visiting club's capacity to arrive from nowhere then it is to be found in the 1960s, when the clubs last entered an Old Trafford derby both competing for the title. City won that 1968 game 3-1 – and the league – but only four years earlier they had been so impoverished that vice-chairman Frank Johnson had approached Old Trafford proposing a ground share at that stadium. City fans were horrified. Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison arrived almost immediately and changed everything.
There is a feeling at United that losing to Wolves last week has removed some pressure by ending their 29-game unbeaten run. "It's not pressure but it's always hanging over you," said the manager, who was not expecting Javier Hernandez at Carrington until lunchtime yesterday following his match for Mexico against Bosnia in the United States. "But now the focus has changed from that to winning the league again."
In his fairly studious evasion of detailed discussion on City, Ferguson said he did not know enough about the opposition's new £27m striker Edin Dzeko, who scored twice against United in last season's Champions League group stage, to discuss him. He preferred to dwell on Michael Owen, last season's match-winner in the corresponding fixture, who has started only four games but scored five times. Owen was missing from March during last season's run-in and could prove a decisive asset this time.
"I keep trying to get myself into a situation where I can play Michael more," Ferguson said. "I'd like to be more fair that way because he's a bloody good player. I'm trying to engineer it so I can get him back in the team because he never lets me down. For the run-in ... he has terrific experience of big games."
Meanwhile, Giggs has said that United miss Carlos Tevez, in a far more positive reflection of the Argentine's departure than Gary Neville provided when claiming last season that Ferguson was right to let him leave. "Obviously, when you lose quality players you are going to miss them but at United we've lost quality players in the past and the club moves on," Giggs said. "Carlos was a quality player. [City] are solid but they have that bit of quality as well. Carlos, we know a lot about: his goals, movement, strength, he's a very good player."
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