BIRMINGHAM, February 9 – Edwin van der Sar believes that Manchester United have done well to stay in touch with Chelsea despite the injury problems that have dogged the season at Old Trafford.United go into their meeting with Aston Villa on Wednesday two points off Carlo Ancelotti’s side, who are in action at Everton on the same evening.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s options at the back have been limited throughout the campaign, with Dutch goalkeeper van der Sar and defenders Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, John O’Shea, Rafael and Gary Neville all enduring stints on the sidelines.
Ferdinand is still suspended and O’Shea is likely to miss the rest of the campaign with a thigh problem.
But even if Vidic does not return from a calf injury at Villa Park, United have finally been able to benefit from having increased options at the back.
Key to that has been the return of van der Sar, who has missed months of the campaign as a result of his own finger and knee injuries and the ill-health of his wife, who suffered a brain haemorrhage in December.
The 39-year-old has played a central role in United’s recent upturn in form and Ferguson’s side travel to Villa Park looking for a fifth straight Premier League win for just the second time this season.
Van der Sar, whose current contract expires in the summer, said: "We’re right up there with Chelsea, just a couple of points behind so the last three months of the season are shaping up to be very interesting.
"It’s all to play for. There are a lot of big games in a short period, with the Champions League also starting up again soon.
"Luckily we have most of our players back. We’re still missing three or four but it’s better than the 11 or 12 that were missing earlier in the season and over Christmas.
"It feels really good to be back. It’s been a stop-start season for me which has been frustrating.
"It was disappointing because I’m not used to being out of action and not being able to play.
"It feels great to be back in the swing of things and playing for United again."
Although Martin O’Neill’s side are chasing a place in the Champions League and won 1-0 at Old Trafford in December, United will be boosted by their impressive record at Villa Park.
Ferguson’s team were held to a goalless draw there last season but are unbeaten there in the league since losing 3-1 on the opening day of the season in 1995.
Villa, who will be without Stephen Warnock and Nigel Reo-Coker through injury, go into the game on the back of an eight-match unbeaten run and they have kept three consecutive clean sheets.
O’Neill feels that former Manchester City defender Richard Dunne, who moved to Villa Park in the summer, has been crucial to his team’s performances.
He said: "Maybe we were lucky to get him and maybe if Manchester City had really wanted him then he might have stayed, but I don’t know that.
"All I do know is that whatever way it fell for us, luck was on our side and I’m just delighted to have him.
"The art of defending isn’t dead. You look at Dunne in particular, he can read the game, he’s very brave and when he’s going to head it you just get out of the way.
"We’ve got a group of players here at this minute who are going week in, week out and I could not fault the application and tenacity of the side.
"I’ve had some very fine defenders in my time, both at Leicester and Celtic, fine players with the same mentality as these lads, who are prepared to be very brave when it’s demanded."