United lose O'Shea for two months

Ferguson says defender's setback is a blow but remains upbeat about title challenge

John O'Shea will miss the next two months of the season after making a slower than expected recovery from a thigh injury. The man whom Sir Alex Ferguson regards as his single most versatile player has not featured for Manchester United since picking up what was described as a "dead leg" following Ireland's controversial World Cup play-off in Paris in November.

However, the injury has not responded to treatment and the Manchester United manager yesterday said the 28-year-old may not be available until the beginning of March. "It is his first injury at the club and it is a big loss," Ferguson said. "He was such a versatile performer. All we can say to him is to get back, it doesn't matter when, but it will be a couple of months yet. He had a thigh injury but the blood congealed and you have to be careful of calcification."

However, with Nemanja Vidic and Wes Brown returning to central defence, Ferguson was able to field a recognisable back-four against Hull and Wigan over the Christmas period. There is no date set for Rio Ferdinand's return from a long-standing back injury – although his progress has been encouraging – while Jonny Evans, whose last game for United was in the 1-0 defeat at Chelsea on 8 November, should, Ferguson said, return "within 10 days".

It is the prospect of having his full defence available that made Ferguson contemplate the second half of the league season with supreme confidence yesterday. He will begin it two points behind Chelsea and two ahead of Arsenal, who have a game in hand. Nevertheless, eight goals against Hull and Wigan have ensured the champions have largely clawed back the advantage in goal difference held by the two London clubs.

"We are where I'd hoped we'd be but you have to respect the fact that Chelsea have won games also," Ferguson said. "The second half of the season doesn't hold any fears for us because we have got the squad to cope. We have our defenders back and I am confident we can handle what is coming at us in the next few months."

Yesterday, Ferguson celebrated his 68th birthday and, although he has said he would not be managing Manchester United when he was 70, nothing is certain. However, overseeing the latest crop of young players, especially the Da Silva twins, is something that visibly enthuses him. Rafael and Fabio, he said, could be Manchester United's full-backs for the next five years at least.

"We have always thought highly of them," Ferguson said. "I think they are both equally good; you can't split them on looks because it is impossible to tell the difference between them and it is the same with their abilities.

"Patrice Evra sets them a terrific example. He has had a fantastic season but I don't think you can set Brazilians like Rafael and Fabio any targets. It is a definite possibility that they could be our full-backs for the next five years. Ability-wise there's no doubt."