MANCHESTER United must choose between Wes Brown and John O’Shea to partner Chris Smalling against Liverpool.
The last time Manchester United took to the field for a Premier League fixture with both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand sidelined, a defensive collapse at Goodison Park ultimately proved decisive in their failed bid to win a fourth successive title last season.
For all of Chris Smalling’s eye-catching progress at Old Trafford during this campaign, and the seasoned experience of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, Sir Alex Ferguson will not need memories of the 3-1 defeat at Everton last February to remind him that United are simply not the same without Vidic and Ferdinand.
Vidic’s dismissal for two yellow cards against Chelsea on Tuesday evening ensures that the Manchester United captain will miss Sunday’s trip to Liverpool through suspension.
And with Ferguson claiming in the wake of the 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge that Ferdinand “won’t be fit” to return from a four-week calf injury lay-off at Anfield, a central defensive pairing of Smalling and Brown appears most likely this weekend.
United will return to Merseyside desperate to avoid a repeat of the calamitous defending against Everton on the other side of Stanley Park 13 months ago which conspired to give Chelsea the title by one point.
But whichever formula Ferguson devises to solve his defensive conundrum at Anfield, he will be faced with as many questions as answers.
Smalling, having deputised for Ferdinand in United’s last five games, is a certain starter at centre-half this weekend barring a miraculous late recovery by the England captain.
A £12 million buy from Fulham last year, the 21 year-old Smalling has proved a huge success at Old Trafford this season and, despite the loss of form suffered by Jonny Evans, Ferguson expects the two defenders to become mainstays at the heart of United’s defence in the years to come.
Ferguson said: “One of the first things I said to (chairman) Martin Edwards when I first came to United was, ‘you don’t have very good partnerships at the centre of defence’, and the goalkeeping situation was never a regular thing either.
“When we got Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister it was an incredible turnaround in consistency and they seldom missed games. That’s something you build over time.
“That just shows that partnerships are vitally important. We’ve seen that with Nemanja and Rio, and hopefully Jonny and Chris can develop that too.”
With Evans sidelined with an ankle injury, however, Ferguson must choose between Brown and O’Shea to partner Smalling against Liverpool, who could hand a debut to £35 million forward Andy Carroll on Sunday.
Ferguson said on Tuesday that “Wes will take over, he has great experience”, but that experience has counted for little so far this season.
Brown, who announced his international retirement last August after winning 23 England caps, has started just two league games all season and none at centre-half.
The 32 year-old has not figured in the Premier League since the 2-2 draw at Aston Villa almost four months ago and, having reportedly clashed with Ferguson during the club’s pre-season tour of the United States, he has become something of a forgotten man.