Pandiani's departure leaves Bruce low on ammunition

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The Independent Online

Manchester United may be there to be shot at, as Sir Alex Ferguson would no doubt concur, yet the Spanish striker nicknamed "The Rifle" will not have them in his sights at Birmingham City tonight. Walter Pandiani, a summer recruit by Steve Bruce, is set to join Espanyol for a third of the £3m the Midlands club lavished on him.

Although Pandiani has fired blanks for most of the season - the Uruguayan has a solitary goal to show for 17 outings - the Barcelona-based club believe that the former Deportivo La Coruña player can alleviate their scoring drought. His departure, which coincides with the latest comeback by the injury-plagued Mikael Forssell, makes a Bruce move for a marksman certain when the transfer window reopens next week.

The embattled Birmingham manager will be without Muzzy Izzet for United's return to St Andrew's, where they won 3-1 before Christmas to reach the Carling Cup semi-finals. Izzet was sent off in the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham on Boxing Day, a result which left Bruce's team second from bottom in the Premiership as they prepare to face a United side lying second from top after the 3-0 win over West Bromwich.

Nicky Butt - once a Ferguson fledgling alongside Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Gary Neville - is in line for a recall to the Birmingham midfield, along with Stephen Clemence and David Dunn. Bruce, who was forced to apologise to his team's supporters for waving to acknowledge his former club's followers during United's recent visit, was heartened after "as good as any performance in a long, long time" at Spurs.

The statistics, however, suggest another fraught night for Bruce. Birmingham have taken four of the 24 points available at home, whereas Ferguson's men have collected 22 from the past eight league fixtures to keep Chelsea just about within sight at the summit.

Ferguson described United's Champions' League elimination by Benfica this month as "a killer", although if anything it appears to have breathed life into their domestic campaign. "We're on a good run now," he said, "and while it's frustrating that we're not getting any breaks in terms of Chelsea's results, all we can do is keep winning - for our pride and for the supporters."

The United manager is likely to restore Cristiano Ronaldo to the starting XI now that the Portuguese is free of suspension. Ronaldo may replace Ryan Giggs, with Park Ji-Sung set to switch from the right flank to the left. With an Old Trafford derby against Bolton on New Year's Eve and the next instalment in United's bitter rivalry with Arsenal at Highbury next Tuesday, he will seek to freshen up his side where possible.

Mikaël Silvestre, who has been absent with an injured thigh, is unlikely to be fit for a recall tonight. Ferguson is confident that Wes Brown and Scholes will have shrugged off a groin strain and cold virus respectively after he substituted them against West Bromwich.

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