United rally to Ferguson's charge
SIR Alex Ferguson is hoping a mounting injury crisis does not undermine Manchester United's title defence before it has even begun. The Old Trafford boss has seen his rearguard ripped apart by a swathe of injuries to key players in pre-season. Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic and Rafael have already been ruled out for the start of the season, while there are concerns over the fitness of Ben Foster, Jonny Evans, Wes Brown and Gary Neville ahead of Sunday's clash against Birmingham. Fergie is hopeful the withdrawals of Foster and Evans from international duty in midweek will give both every chance to recover in time for the opening fixture of the campaign. But in his mind he will be drawing up plans for a makeshift back five that will bear virtually no resemblance to the defensive unit that proved pivotal to United's title success last season. He is potentially looking at a rearguard consisting of third choice goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak, Fabio, Rio Ferdinand, John O'Shea and Patrice Evra. Darren Fletcher is another possibility to fill in at right-back, though United would miss his combative qualities in central midfield. Fergie is hopeful the "minor injury" that forced Foster to pull out of England's 2-2 draw with Holland on Wednesday is not serious enough to rule him out of Sunday. Evans' stiff ankle, meanwhile, will have had plenty of time to repair after Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington sent him back to Manchester for treatment. Fergie had hoped Gary Neville would have been able to play some part in last weekend's Community Shield defeat to Chelsea, but the United captain's tweaked groin did not heal in time. It remains to be seen if he will be fit enough to make the squad for Birmingham. Click here to join in our M.E.N. Sport predictor league Fergie said last week that Brown should recover from his thigh strain in time for Sunday, but having had only limited involvement in pre-season, he is likely to be eased into the first team picture. It leaves Fergie with unwelcome concerns as he bids to win an unprecedented fourth successive title. Fergie will hope his injury concerns are not a precursor for the rest of the campaign, having had to juggle his defence last term in the face of injury and suspension to the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra and Brown. The form of Evans and Rafael proved crucial in absorbing the affects of their absences, but it is those two who are on the treatment table at the start of this campaign. Fergie said: "This season will be a challenge for us. Every year there is a lot of expectation, that never changes. But our aim is always to be No1. "In the search for that kind of success we have to accept the challenges from everyone. It doesn't matter if it's from Liverpool, Chelsea, City or Arsenal. All the big clubs pose challenges. "We hope they find us very difficult." Fergie comes up against one of his protégés in Alex McLeish on Sunday. Newly-promoted Birmingham will be one of the favourites to go down this season, but veteran striker Kevin Phillips believes they can avoid the drop. "We've definitely got the players, it's just about trying to find that formation, that consistency, and settling down, which I'm sure will happen," he said. "For me, the first game of the season is a good start for us. Everyone says: 'Oh, Manchester United away' but I'd rather it be that than Wolves at home because the pressure would then be straight on you. "We go to Old Trafford and there's no pressure on us, no-one is going to give us a hope in hell's chance. Newcastle went there last year and nicked a 1-1 draw, Reading the year before as well. "It's a good start for us then we follow it up with two home games." Do you think United will have any trouble beating Birmingham? Have your say.
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