Rio Ferdinand may miss rest of Manchester United season

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson insists Manchester United are in better shape to handle their defensive injury crisis than they were last December despite raising the spectre of Rio Ferdinand missing the remainder of the campaign.

After being at the centre of a will-he, won't-he debate about whether he will keep the England captaincy this week, the issue around Ferdinand has now switched to if the 32-year-old will be back in action before the season's end.

When the former West Ham star limped out of United's Premier League encounter with Wolves on February 5 after sustaining a calf injury in the warm-up, Ferguson suggested Ferdinand would only be sidelined for a fortnight.

That period has already been extended to six weeks and there is no likelihood of Ferdinand being back for Saturday's Premier League encounter with Bolton, nor the England double-header that follows.

And although the defender has publicly stated how well his gym sessions have been going, Ferguson is a worried man.

"We are not looking at Rio as a short-term situation for us," said the United boss.

"He has been out for a few weeks now anyway and has not started training yet.

"It looks to me as if we will be lucky to get him back for some point of the season."

Ferguson has had similar problems before.

He recalled the absence of Bryan Robson for a major part of the 1989-90 season notable for calls for his dismissal and that job-changing FA Cup final win over Crystal Palace as something that started off being quite innocuous but turned into a never-ending saga, as what can happen with this particular muscle.

"Sometimes calf injuries can be troublesome," said Ferguson.

"I remember Bryan Robson, the year we won the FA Cup in 1990, was out for four months with a calf injury. It is looking that way again with Rio."

In ruling John O'Shea out for five weeks with the hamstring injury he sustained in Tuesday's Champions League win over Marseille, Rafael for two with a similar problem picked up after replacing the Republic of Ireland star at Old Trafford and skipper Nemanja Vidic for at least another week with the calf injury that forced him to miss the midweek win, Ferguson has laid bare a defensive crisis with echoes of last season.

Then United managed to get through a Champions League trip to Wolfsburg but hit a brick wall at Fulham, when Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher played in defence alongside Ritchie de Laet, who is currently on loan at Portsmouth.

The subsequent defeat at Craven Cottage proved so costly in the end as United finished a point behind Chelsea.

"We hope a similar thing doesn't happen," said Ferguson. "We hope it is just a bad spell.

"Apart from this period, we have been OK with the defensive part this season. It has all just fallen apart in the last week."

The one chink of light will be the availability of Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans, who could provide some company for Fabio, Chris Smalling, Wes Brown and Evra, who are currently the only fit defenders Ferguson has available after returning to training following an ankle injury.

"Hopefully Jonny Evans may be fit for Saturday, even if it is a bit of a risk," he said.

"He has trained all week but he has been out for such a long time."

Ferguson is hoping the forthcoming international fixtures will provide a break in a packed schedule that could come to United's aid.

Anderson is on the comeback trail, as is Owen Hargreaves, whose first-team action since September 2008 extends to a minute at Sunderland last season and five in this term's home encounter with Wolves in November when he limped off with a hamstring injury.

"Anderson is doing OK running-wise," said Ferguson. "He is getting closer.

"Owen Hargreaves has trained this week, which is good news. There are some promising things going to help us on the run-in."