I hope everyone got their holiday shopping done early* so that you can settle in for Manchester United's congested holiday fixture list. Starting on Sunday versus Queens Park Rangers, the Reds will face an 18-day span where they will have five Premier League fixtures -- and just 4 days after that, they face a FA Cup tie versus Manchester City on January 8. Needless to say, a deep squad is desired so that the squad can be rotated. However, the injury concerns at United are somewhat drastic at the moment. A number of players -- such as Tom Cleverley, Michael Owen, Rafael, Fabio, and Dimitar Berbatov -- are expected to recover from injury over the upcoming weeks according to manager Sir Alex Ferguson while the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Anderson, and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) are out longer. Even for the returning players, fitness will be a concern so Fergie may rely heavily on his current healthy players to see United through during this period.
* If you have, piss off overachiever.
With City losing their first league match of the season on Monday versus Chelsea FC, United have pulled within two points of the leaders. And while the upcoming fixture list is congested, the opponents are relatively favorable: (a) QPR, (a) Fulham FC, Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers, (a) Newcastle United. Despite the injuries, United catch these sides at an opportunistic time because none of those squads are built to withstand multiple games a week -- as are the clubs that typically do battle in Europe. City undoubtedly have a deep squad but they face an in-form Arsenal in the upcoming weekend and also Liverpool prior our FA Cup clash with them.
The opportunity to gain ground or overtake the leaders during this short period of time is there while the fixtures come fast and in a fury. You certainly can't win the title in December or in early January but you can jockey for a more favorable position in pursuit of that goal. Now that United are out of the Champions League, the league title is the primary focus this season. Below is a position-by-position discussion of United's squad for the upcoming holiday fixture list.
Quite simply, it will be No. 1 David de Gea and Anders Lindegaard that will feature. It wouldn't be see surprising for Lindegaard to see action during this stretch -- perhaps in up to two starts.
With Vidic out for the season due to a ruptured cruciate ligament, and with the injuries -- and general injury proneness -- to Rafael and Fabio, depth is a concern. In addition, there is the ever-present fitness concerns these days with Rio Ferdinand because of his back. Along with Rio, there is also Patrice Evra, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, and the inexperienced Zeki Fryers. Jones will likely be used in midfield as well (more on this next).
Essentially, that leaves 5 established first-team defenders and Fryers likely providing cover. Right-winger Antonio Valencia is an option at right-back as well. Perhaps though, the youngster Fryers may earn himself a start versus either Wigan or Blackburn at Old Trafford. The positive is that Smalling, Evans, and Jones are capable of playing full-back if needed, along obviously with center-back. Versatility helps with squad rotation. The negative is that an injury would leave the squad even more dangerously thin. Hopefully at least one of the twins is able to return during this stretch and contribute.
So, expect Rio to start whenever he feels up for it and he could be partnered by either Evans, Smalling, or Jones at center-back. Patrice Evra will feature at left-back until he is run into the ground while Smalling and Jones will be the options at right-back.
With the injuries to Ando and Cleverley, and with Darren Fletcher forced to take a break from football due to illness, options are limited. That essentially leaves you with Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs as established central-midfielders. Darron Gibson is arguably this as well while Park Ji-sung and Phil Jones are able to do a job here as well. Starlet Paul Pogba could provide cover and the hope is that Cleverley can transition back into the squad very soon.
Very simply, Carrick will likely be asked to play every single minute that he can. Giggs will presumably play quite a bit too but his minutes will be more carefully monitored due to the simple fact that he's 38-years-old. Jones has shown well when partnered with Carrick and he'll likely feature as well. However, he might also be in the rotation in defense. Gibson likely sees some time as and so might Park in the center of the pitch. It's a guess at this point on how much the inexperienced Pogbo or the injured Cleverley will be involved.
There's depth here with Nani, Park, Valencia, Ashley Young, and even Giggs. There's also fringe squad members Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf that can provide cover on the flanks.
Nani, whose form has been very good these past few games, likely plays every minute that he can. His ability to play on either flank helps with rotation as well. Young's form has dipped but he likely plays quite a bit on the left flank. In addition, his versatility allows him to be an option on right flank or in the hole behind a lead striker. Valencia is coming off a tremendous match versus Wolverhampton Wanderers and if that form continues, he'll likely play a lot on the right flank. Park is another starter quality option, although he may be asked to play in the middle as previously mentioned. I'd be surprised to see Giggsy on the flanks unless it's an in-game adjustment due to his necessity in central-midfield.
It's probably a good bet that Wayne Rooney will play every single minute that he can during this stretch. Danny Welbeck is the other likely first-choice striker until Chicharito returns to provide competition. As of December 3, the Mexican striker was anticipated to miss about four weeks after his injury at Villa Park -- this timeline takes him to about the New Year. Dimitar Berbatov is expected to return from his knock in the Crystal Palace match and if this is so, he'll likely be asked to feature on number of occasions. Macheda comes next in the pecking order and likely followed by Diouf. Owen is an option as well if he returns from injury.
It'll be interesting to see if starlet Ravel Morrison gets an opportunity. The youngster is in the mold of a support striker or a central-attacking-midfielder rather than an out-to-out striker.