LONDON, January 16 – Just as it seemed things could not be going better for Manchester United, a sudden flurry of injuries threatens to derail the champions' drive for a third straight Premier League title.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side head for Bolton on Saturday knowing three points will allow them to leapfrog Liverpool and top the table for at least the 48 hours before their rivals entertain Everton in Monday’s Merseyside derby.
Bolton, hovering just above the relegation zone, would appear unlikely to interfere with that script, but United will travel to the Reebok Stadium without leading man Wayne Rooney and at least half their first-choice back four.
Patrice Evra (ankle) and Rio Ferdinand (back) will both definitely miss Saturday’s match and Ferguson’s defensive headache has been exacerbated by the injury suffered by back-up centreback Jonny Evans in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Wigan.
With Wes Brown a long-term absentee, club captain Gary Neville could find himself pressed into action as an emergency centreback and Ferguson admits he is keeping his fingers crossed that Nemanja Vidic does not join his team-mates in the treatment room.
The win over Wigan was United’s ninth consecutive clean sheet and Ferguson hailed Vidic’s outstanding form as the key to that run.
"His reading of the game is excellent and he is as tough as nails," the Scot said of big Serb.
Rooney’s absence should give Carlos Tevez the chance to convince Ferguson that United should come up with the funds required to extend his current loan deal beyond the end of this season and prevent the disgruntled Argentina star from seeking a new challenge in Italy or Spain.
Chelsea’s morale was revived by a 4-1 FA Cup win at Southend in midweek but the mental scars created by last weekend’s 3-0 demolition at Old Trafford could be reopened when Stoke visit Stamford Bridge.
Against sides residing in the lower echelons of English football’s third tier, the Blues defensive fragility was exposed once more at Southend and it is certain that Stoke, armed with Rory Delap’s bullet-like long throws, will provide another testing examination of whatever system Luiz Felipe Scolari opts for this weekend.
Arsenal will have a point to prove when they visit Hull, shock 2-1 winners when they made their first top flight appearance at the Emirates earlier in the season.
That setback was taken as a sign that Arsenal were unlikely to mount a credible title challenge this season and they have been struggling to dispel that impression ever since.
They remain outside the top four but, quietly, Arsene Wenger’s side have put together a run of seven matches unbeaten in the league over a period in which Hull’s early season momentum has all but disappeared.
It is widely assumed that if Arsenal are to get back into Champions League qualifying places they will have to rely on Aston Villa, who are away to Sunderland on Saturday, slipping up.
On current form however, Chelsea, who are only a point ahead of Villa in third place, may be easier to eject from the top four club.
At the bottom, the battle for survival remains as tight as ever with only eight points separating ninth-placed Fulham from bottom side West Brom, who will hope to escape from the drop zone by beating Middlesbrough at The Hawthorns on Saturday.
Sunday sees Tottenham host manager Harry Redknapp’s old club Portsmouth while West Ham take on London rivals Fulham.
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)
Bolton v Manchester Utd, Chelsea v Stoke, Hull v Arsenal (1730 GMT), Manchester City v Wigan, Sunderland v Aston Villa, West Brom v Middlesbrough
Tottenham v Portsmouth (1600 GMT), West Ham v Fulham (1330 GMT)
Liverpool v Everton (2000 GMT)