Manchester United may finally have their first-choice central defensive pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic restored to the side for tonight's encounter with West Ham at Old Trafford, four months after the pair last appeared together.
The defensive weaknesses of Sir Alex Ferguson's side have contributed to six league defeats and only one side have won the Premier League title with more: Blackburn Rovers, who lost seven times in 1994/5.
Ferdinand and Vidic's partnership has never looked quite as formidable since Fernando Torres reduced it to shreds in Liverpool's 4-1 win at Old Trafford last March and it was in another defeat to Rafael Benitez's side – at Anfield on 25 October – that the two last started a game together. Vidic's dismissal in the 2-0 defeat meant they did not end it that way.
Ferdinand is clear to start, having concluded a four-match ban, while there are indications that Vidic, fit enough for the bench in the 3-1 defeat at Everton which suggested that Jonny Evans needs a rest from his deputising role, has recovered from the calf problem which led him to pull out of the FA Cup third round tie against Leeds United and the Premier League visit to Arsenal.
United's defence has hardly leaked goals in the time the preferred partnership has been absent, with Ferdinand struggling with a back complaint. The side have conceded 24 goals in 26 matches since the Anfield defeat, though the ease with which Milan created chances in San Siro last Tuesday and Everton managed to capitalise on superior speed on Saturday gave Ferguson cause for concern.
Another decision for Ferguson is whether to deploy Wayne Rooney tonight, having seen him fail to hit recent standards in the Goodison Park match. Michael Owen, who has been limited to just five Premier League starts during Rooney's most profitable season for United, reflected yesterday that his World Cup hopes are now "a long shot" and admitted that Rooney's success has contributed to that fact.
"Rooney is currently as good as any striker in the world," Owen said. "[That's] unfortunately for me... because it means I get less time. But he's fantastic, he's changed his role in this last year or so really. He's always played outside the box as a sort of second striker with other goal scorers in the team.
"When I was playing with him with England, I would be the one scoring most of the goals, he would be in behind but now we've lost the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo and he's stepped in and become one of the world's best."
West Ham go into the game with renewed confidence after their first back-to-back wins since last March and boosted by the return to fitness of England striker Carlton Cole and Guillermo Franco. Benni McCarthy's knee injury is likely to keep him out of the side.
Back trouble: United woe
Manchester United have had 11 different starting partnerships in central defence in the Premier League this season, using eight different players. Their first-choice pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic has only managed to start four games together, the last at Liverpool back in October.
*Man Utd central defensive partnerships (league starts only)
7 games Brown & Evans
6 Vidic & Brown
4 Vidic & Ferdinand
2 Ferdinand & Evans, Brown & O'Shea
1 Evans & O'Shea, Vidic & Evans, Vidic & O'Shea, Neville & Brown, Vidic & De Laet, Carrick & De LaetReuse content