Date: 23rd October 2009 at 7:49pm
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The big question is: who will be passed fit ahead of Sunday’s showdown with Liverpool? I do not really care about Torres and Gerrard, so this will about our own players. With Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra, Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney all missing Wednesday’s deserved 1-0 win at CSKA, they faced a race to be fit for Anfield.

Well, two of them have definitely won the race, according to Sir Alex but the other two has to face missing the big game.

‘On the injury front I can’t give a clear picture, there are still some doubts about Rooney and Fletcher,’ Fergie said.

‘Patrice is fit, and Ryan is also fine, but Ji-sung is out unfortunately. Everyone is fit from after Wednesday’s game in Moscow.’

So we’ll have a proper, quick, creative left flank with Evra and Giggs both fit – it’s a big relief. But of course it would be brilliant to have the other two available as well even though it looks unlikely at the moment. Who is the more important though?

Well, the headline has already revealed my opinion: I’d say Fletcher’s recovery is crucial and his absence would leave a bigger hole.

Why is that? I can cite a few examples from last season and two of those stand out: the 4-1 defeat to Liverpool and the Champions League final. In both games our midfield pairing was Carrick and Anderson and we were hopeless in both games as we had severe trouble with getting the ball back in time because of Carrick’s lack of pace and Anderson’s lack of positional sense and anticipation.

Liverpool will certainly have a player operating behind the main striker. It’s likely to be Yossi Benayoun or it could be Steven Gerrard if he makes an unlikely recovery; doesn’t matter because the important thing is that we must put this withdrawn striker/playmaker under severe pressure, something we failed to do in March. Fletcher, a big-game player, is excellent for this task.

We will need to get the most out of Michael Carrick’s exceptional passing range but to achieve that he must not spend most of his time running after the ball. He’s at his best with two energetic runners on either side of him in a three-man midfield – remember how excellent the Fletcher-Carrick-Anderson midfield three was against Arsenal in the Champions League, the only time we used this trio.

Rooney, on the other hand, represents a tactical dilemma. I firmly believe that the three-man midfield is the best answer to the physical superiority of the technically inferior Lucas-Mascherano pairing which means that either Rooney will have to be shunted out to the wing, a position he does not enjoy and with both being occupied by in-form players it might not be the wisest of choices.

Or he could replace Dimitar Berbatov as the attacking spearhead which, again, might not be the best idea. Rooney is an excellent, world-class player and when he’s fit he usually plays and there’s no problem with that. But for this type of game he might not be our best bet.

There are many teams in Europe who let you play, who do not put extreme pressure on the opposition whenever those happen to have possession. Liverpool are not one of them: you can expect immediate and asphyxiating pressure on our players when Liverpool lose the ball and that is where Berbatov excels: he’s brilliant at keeping possession under pressure. He has the strength, the height and most importantly, the technique to do that.

Of course we could still play 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 with Rooney playing in an advanced attacking midfielder role (this would effectively be a carbon copy of Liverpool’s favourite formation) but there’s a definite risk that we’ll lose the midfield battle in that case. Lucas and Mascherano are not creative or skilful, they are not good passers of the ball but they have prodigious reserves of stamina and they will harass us all afternoon. This, and not Torres’ pace, was the key to their win at Old Trafford (and at Anfield as well where they had Xabi Alonso available to give their passing some rhytm).

So, my line-up would be this:

an der Sar – O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra – Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson – Valencia, Berbatov, Giggs

And I would stick with this even if Rooney’s deemed fit. After all, why risk another, more serious injury by starting him when he’s such an excellent, world-class option to bring in from the bench if things are not going according to plan?