MILAN, February 23 – Manchester United face a defensive injury crisis ahead of Tuesday's crucial Champions League round of 16 first-leg clash away to Inter Milan.Sir Alex Ferguson is already deprived of Serbia centre-back Nemanja Vidic through suspension while veteran Gary Neville and Wes Brown are both definitely out.
Northern Ireland centre-back Jonny Evans also picked up an ankle injury during Saturday’s 2-1 Premier League victory over Blackburn, while fellow defender John O’Shea missed that game with a heel problem sustained in the 3-0 win over Fulham last Wednesday.
It means that Ferguson could be left with only one recognised senior centre-half in Rio Ferdinand, while the only other defender at his disposal to have played first-team football before this season is France’s Patrice Evra.
It has all left Ferguson a bit worried ahead of the most eagerly anticipated tie of the round.
"We’ve got some injury issues of course and I just hope we can get two centre-backs out there on Tuesday," he said.
"At this moment in time, it’s very doubtful. Jonny Evans is unlikely to be playing, he’s looking very doubtful and I’m just hoping to have John O’Shea available because we don’t have Gary Neville and we don’t have Wes Brown.
"We’re having a nightmare with defenders this season. Hopefully we can patch it up for Tuesday because this does leave us very, very short."
It means at least one of twin teenage full-backs Rafael and Fabio Da Silva is sure to play and maybe even both.
Otherwise Ferguson will have to look at the possibility of throwing a midfielder into his backline although there are few feasible options.
Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have always been attacking players while Darren Fletcher has had the odd run-out at right-back but never in the heart of the defence.
Then there is Michael Carrick but his form in midfield has been one of the main reasons behind United’s stunning recent run and his passing would be sorely missed if he had to step back.
It is probably the worst possible part of the team to be depleted ahead of the trip to the San Siro.
In Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano, Inter have one of the best strike pairings in Europe and the two forwards always provide a stern test for any central-defensive partnership, let alone a make-shift one.
United may well have to resort to a dogged defensive display, aiming to hit their hosts on the break.
That is something that Inter coach Jose Mourinho is most concerned about.
"I don’t want my players to feel under pressure, I want them to enjoy themselves and the first thing I will tell them is that I have great belief in their ability to win it," said the Portuguese boss.
"I’ve known Manchester since 2004, they’re the best counter-attacking team in the world and can kill their opponents in transition (from defence to attack).
"They have (Dimitar) Berbatov, who has fantastic technical qualities and then (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Wayne) Rooney, (Carlos) Tevez or Park (Ji-sung) who can make the difference, give them width and pace. Our concentration will have to be spot on."
If anyone can instil confidence in his players it is Mourinho himself who has only lost once to Ferguson in 12 previous encounters.
As coach of Porto he earned a win and a draw at the same stage of the competition in 2004 before leading the Portuguese side to the title.
And with Chelsea he only lost once in 10 games against Ferguson, winning four times and drawing five.
However, United have the edge in previous meetings between the two teams as back in the 1998-99 season United eliminated Inter 3-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals on their way to lifting the title.
Three United players, Neville, Giggs and Scholes, survive from that tie as well as Inter’s captain Javier Zanetti.