SOUTHAMPTON, United Kingdom, September 1 – Sir Alex Ferguson hopes Jonny Evans can shore up Manchester United’s leaky defence at Southampton on Sunday as injuries continue to dominate the early stages of his team’s Premier League title challenge.
Northern Ireland international Evans has been declared fit after recovering from an ankle operation and his presence is a major boost for Ferguson, who is still without defenders Phil Jones, Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling due to injuries.
After an unconvincing start to the new campaign, Ferguson is also facing up to a month without England forward Wayne Rooney who suffered a bad gash to his leg during the nervous 3-2 win over Fulham last weekend.
But the return of Evans, who can now partner Nemanja Vidic at the heart of the United defence, is the most significant injury news for Ferguson, who was forced to deploy midfielder Michael Carrick at centre-back for the opening two games of the campaign.
“On the centre back front, which is really my main concern at the moment, Jonny Evans played Wednesday in the reserves and came through fine,” said Ferguson. “He is certainly the strongest option we’ve got.
“It’s an improvement from what it’s been like the last two games. It allows us to put Michael Carrick back into midfield. And, of course, Wayne, I think will be four weeks.
“It’s a bad gash but he was treated really quickly and we don’t expect any complications from it.
“I think four weeks he should be back. The fact it’s a gash, not a ligament or muscle injury, means he can do a lot of work in the gymnasium. We’re not too bad with that.”
Rooney’s injury during the Fulham victory clouded the issue over his absence from United’s starting line-up for that game.
With £24 million recruit Robin van Persie making his debut, eyebrows were raised over Rooney starting on the bench and questions were posed as to whether the former Arsenal forward and the England star can play together in the same line-up.
“He wasn’t as fit,” said Ferguson of Rooney’s omission. “He said himself he needs a few games and I wanted to play Van Persie at the start at Old Trafford.
“I knew he wasn’t 100 per cent fit either, in fact only because of losing the second goal, I was forced to keep Van Persie on.
“I would rather have taken him off with 20 minutes to go. I couldn’t really start the two of them and I wanted to start with Van Persie.
“Wayne, as he said himself, needs games. He’s behind the rest. He’s not as advanced as (Shinji) Kagawa or others.
“So it wasn’t an easy choice, simply because you’re leaving out a really good player and you’re leaving out a player who can get you goals.
“His scoring performance has improved each year, it’s getting better every year. So that’s not an easy decision but it was done.”
Southampton have a chance to avenge the defeat they suffered in their last league meeting with United, a reverse that condemned the south coast club to relegation from the top-flight.
The two clubs have met twice in the FA Cup in the intervening years, United winning on both occasions, but the opportunity to record their first points of the season against Ferguson’s side will no doubt provide additional motivation for Nigel Adkins’ team.
“A couple of years ago, we could only dream about playing Manchester United in the Premier League,” Adkins said.
“We played them in the FA Cup and what a great day that was, but now it’s in the league so it’s the real thing and the real deal.”
“The first two fixtures (against Manchester City and Wigan) have underlined the intensity that the games are played at and the quality of the opposition — if you knock off for two seconds, they’ve all got quality strikers who will punish you if given a chance.”
Southampton go into the clash having paid out a club record £12 million for Bologna’s Uruguay playmaker Gaston Ramirez on Friday.