It is a moot point as to whether Sir Alex Ferguson has assembled the best squad of his time at Old Trafford, but he almost certainly has his biggest.
Carrick in unfamiliar territory
It is a moot point as to whether Sir Alex Ferguson has assembled the best squad of his time at Old Trafford, but he almost certainly has his biggest. Options in every department include seven international defenders plus two Brazilian prodigies - the da Silva twins - at the back. Factor in the versatility of Wes Brown and John O'Shea and the possible permutations should be endless.
However, United require an element of resourcefulness tonight. They arrived in Wolfsburg yesterday with just two defenders, one utterly untried in the senior team. Strength in depth has not rendered them immune to an injury crisis. Instead, fine players are being reinvented. As a quartet, Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher offer speed and skill, determination and distribution, experience and energy.
What they are not is a logical back four, yet they made up the rearguard in the final minutes of United's 4-0 win at West Ham on Saturday. Now only Evra of United's premier nine defenders is available for the Champions League game in Germany. Indeed the only other specialist in the 19-man squad is Oliver Gill, a teenager yet to appear for the first team and best known for being the son of the club's chief executive, David.
The flu-struck Nemanja Vidic is not fit to return. Nor is Brown, who limped off at Upton Park. Gary Neville and Fabio da Silva (groin) are out, Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand are sidelined by calf injuries and O'Shea by a thigh problem. Ferguson has grounds to be grateful that the irrepressible Evra appears indestructible and is making new demands of Carrick. A makeshift central defender on his return to West Ham, the midfielder admitted: "It's the first time I have played there."
Strolling around appearing typically languid, Carrick made it look easy. Completing each of the 26 passes he attempted, he is United's best passer at the heart of the defence since Ferguson's ill-fated gamble on an ageing Laurent Blanc. Yet the task is altogether different tonight. Carrick will be the senior figure alongside either Evra, Gill or Fletcher. The hulking Edin Dzeko and his powerful partner Grafite present a far more physical challenge.
Unlike the diminutive West Ham forward line, the Wolfsburg attackers have aerial ability in abundance. It is a reason to keep Evra - "the smallest centre-half in the world" at Upton Park, according to Ferguson - in his usual role on the left. Dzeko troubled a bigger United defence that included Vidic, Ferdinand and O'Shea at Old Trafford in September. As there is a precedent for players impressing against Ferguson's teams before joining them, that could bode well for the big Bosnian.
United's assistant manager Mike Phelan said: "He showed his threat at Old Trafford and he appeals because he is a tall, skilful boy and in some ways is an ideal player for the English league." He may prove perfect for the Champions League tonight. The German side need to win to qualify while United require a point to ensure they top the group. Given the absentees, they may come to regret taking a solitary point from their last two home games, against CSKA Moscow and Besiktas. Then weakened teams were a matter of choice. Now, though Ferguson has decided to omit Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, it is largely enforced.
A game that, for them, should have been a dead rubber could condemn them to second place in the group and a potential last 16 meeting with Real Madrid or Barcelona. A clean sheet should spare them that fate, so out of position and in the spotlight, much rests on Carrick and co tonight. firstname.lastname@example.org Wolfsburg v Manchester United, KO 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +3