Loss of Heinze for season hits United ambition

Tomorrow he takes a Manchester United side already five points adrift of the champions to Anfield minus Roy Keane, Gary Neville and another of his "warriors" - Gabriel Heinze, out for the rest of the season with a cruciate ligament injury.

Confirmation that the Argentina defender had not suffered a medial knee ligament as anticipated in Villarreal and had instead ruptured his anterior cruciate represented a monumental setback yesterday. Only last Saturday Heinze collected his Matt Busby Player of the Year award for a flawless introduction to English football following last summer's £6.9m move from Paris Saint-Germain.

With Neville out, younger brother Phil sold to Everton, Wes Brown and Quinton Fortune injured and Jonathan Spector on a season-long loan at Charlton, the loss of Heinze leaves the United manager little option but to select the midfielder Kieran Richardson at left-back for the trip to Liverpool. It is hardly ideal preparation for a contest that promises even greater antagonism than usual as the Kop warms up for Wayne Rooney's return to Merseyside.

Rooney, admonished by Ferguson for his dismissal against Villarreal on Wednesday, will start tomorrow at a ground where he scored the only goal in last season's corresponding fixture and had a mobile phone thrown in his direction as a result. But it is the loss of Heinze, who could miss next summer's World Cup, and the subsequent exposure of his limited squad that is now the Scot's overriding concern.

"It is terrible news," said Ferguson. "It's a cruciate injury from an innocuous incident. These things happen all the time, but the way he landed created the injury. He's going to miss most, if not all of the season because of it. It's awful luck for the lad. He's been a real warrior and true defender in the Argentinian fashion. It's difficult to say if he'll be fit for the World Cup but he'll have a chance."

Ferguson is confident Heinze will be able to resume his career at United, but admits the 27-year-old has an arduous rehabilitation programme ahead of him. "Our record with these injuries is terrific, 100 per cent. Ruud [van Nistelrooy], Roy Keane and Wes Brown twice have come back from cruciates, so we are confident he will come back OK.

"Methods have advanced but it is still hard work from the word go. I use the example of Lothar Matthäus. He was about 32 or 33 and every day he got up at four in the morning to do an extra session at Bayern Munich. That's the sacrifice you need to make. Ruud was on the bike four hours after his operation. You have to go 'bang', right at it."

Ferguson was reluctant to rejoin the debate generated by Rooney's red card in Spain - "I have a lot of thoughts on what happened, I am just not prepared to share them with you" - as he intends to keep in-house a disciplinary procedure that is expected to include a fine of a week's wage for the 19-year-old. He did say: "We'll put the sending-off to bed and Wayne will play on Sunday. He is a big game player and there will be no problem with that.

"I am not surprised by all the attention. It happened with George Best, it happened with Paul Gascoigne and it happened with David Beckham. It is the way of the world. We have experience of these situations and we will handle it."

He added: "The hostility in these games is between the fans, not so much the teams. Disciplinary wise players have been sent off, but there has never been anything serious and the spirit has been good."

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