Premier League leaders Manchester United are set for another boost with Nemanja Vidic a certain starter against Sunderland on Saturday.
Still jubilant from Sunday’s last-ditch 3-2 win over neighbours Manchester City, which pulled Alex Ferguson’s men six points clear at the top, United will come up against a similarly rejuvenated force in Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland.
Sunderland strode to a confident 3-0 win over fellow strugglers Reading on Tuesday to launch themselves out of the drop zone, albeit by just a point.
But Saturday’s assignment at Old Trafford will pose a far greater challenge for O’Neill’s side, especially given Vidic’s inclusion.
Manchester United’s porous defence escaped yet again at City despite conceding two goals and it seems almost unfeasible to imagine United top with a six-point cushion at this midway point of the season, given they conceded one less and one more respectively in the entire 2007/08 and 2008/09 title-winning campaign.
Vidic’s uncompromising style has been sorely missing for United, a fact not lost on Ferguson.
“In the last 18 months he has only had ten games or something – it is not many games that he has had,” Ferguson said.
“He is a battler, a real competitor. That uncompromising way of his … he likes defending, that’s what it is.”
“Absolutely (he is a huge boost) – he gives us the options.”
Vidic’s central-defensive partner Rio Ferdinand should be right to play despite being hit on the brow by a coin tossed by a City fan following Robin van Persie’s late winner on Sunday.
Sunderland have struggled for goals this term and that could well play into the hands of United, who have scored a league-best 40.
Sunderland’s leading scorer Steven Fletcher, who has scored six of the side’s 17 Premier League goals, returned from injury and to the score sheet against Reading and will continue to lead the line.
Sunderland need more points to split a group of four sides hovering just above the relegation zone, while United can bolster their lead with another win.
United’s Shinji Kagawa (knee) is close to a return date while team-mates Anderson and Nani (both hamstring) are another fortnight from resuming.
Sunderland will be without captain Lee Cattermole and Wes Brown (knee) for a further two months.