United ready to resume domestic hostilities

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The Independent Football

Manchester United, suddenly within sight of that Premier League summit, are hungry for three points against Middlesbrough at Old Trafford tonight, with the choice of referee adding spice to an encounter already lent intensity by the clubs' controversial Carling Cup encounter in September.

Martin Atkinson's arrival as referee brings him his first United game since he officiated in United's FA Cup defeat to Portsmouth last March, after which Sir Alex Ferguson's then assistant Carlos Queiroz described him as a "robber" and Ferguson said the official's performance "should not be accepted" and that he had been selected out of favouritism by match officials' head Keith Hackett. Ferguson and Queiroz surprisingly escaped an FA improper conduct charge.

Tonight's fixture has been an intense affair since Gareth Southgate questioned Cristiano Ronaldo's sportsmanship a few years back. The Carling Cup clash that saw Emmanuel Pogatetz launch the ugly foul on United's youngster Rodrigo Possebon for which the Boro skipper was dismissed adds more piquancy.

Brazilian full-back Rafael da Silva may be introduced into a youthful United defence missing both Rio Ferdinand, who is resting a back problem, and Patrice Evra, serving a four-match ban. There is also a possible return for Dimitar Berbatov, who picked up a virus en route to the World Club Championship in Japan.

*The future of Derby County manager Paul Jewell has been cast into further doubt after his side slipped to a sixth defeat in nine league games, losing 1-0 to Ipswich at Pride Park yesterday. Jewell failed to appear for the post-match press conference.