London, Dec 9: For Manchester United, a Premier League game against a perennial struggler such as Wolverhampton Wanderers normally has little significance beyond an opportunity for three points. But these are not normal times at United.
Dumped out of the Champions League, humiliated by its entry to the Europa League and without captain Nemanja Vidic for the rest of the season because of injury, United hosts Wolves on Saturday low on morale and desperate for a victory.
And this weekend could offer one of very few chances for United to put pressure on unbeaten local rival Manchester City. Victory for United would leave the defending champions just two points behind City by the time the longtime leaders play at Chelsea on Monday.
But Vidic's absence after rupturing the cruciate ligament in his right knee in Wednesday's 2-1 defeat at FC Basel leaves a huge hole to fill alongside Rio Ferdinand in central defense.
United's defense had been functioning well since October's 6-1 humiliation against City. United has conceded just one goal in five Premier League matches but things went spectacularly wrong in the Champions League and Vidic's injury forces a reshuffle.
“We'll now have to choose between Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling,” United manager Alex Ferguson said. “It is a loss and we missed him in the early part of the season for five weeks with his calf injury. He's such a dominant character, particularly his defending in the penalty box.”
Ferguson could at least have striker Dimitar Berbatov back from injury to face Wolves, which beat United 2-1 last season. The return of a player who scored 21 Premier League goals last season would be huge for a side still missing injured Mexico international Javier Hernandez.
Tom Cleverley, Michael Owen, Anderson and the twin Da Silva defenders are all out. City will probably be without Micah Richards against Chelsea because of the calf injury that kept the right back out of Wednesday's win over Bayern Munich, which was insufficient to keep City in the Champions League. Stefan Savic or Pablo Zabaleta will fill in for him.
Third-place Tottenham is at Stoke on Sunday hoping for a slip up by United to open a route to second place. After a club-record six straight Premier League wins, Spurs are just two points behind United. Chelsea is another three points back in fourth place, but Spurs have played a game fewer than all its rivals at the top of the table.
“Without any question, this is the best squad we have had since I first joined Spurs,” defender Younes Kaboul said. “We have so many great players here, it is a pleasure to be a part of it at the moment. The competition for places is so fierce, there is always someone waiting to take your place.
“More competition is good because it makes you work harder.” Kaboul is likely to feature again at Stoke but manager Harry Redknapp has to decide whether to pick the in-form Jermain Defoe, who has three goals in his last four league matches, or the fit-again Rafael van der Vaart up front.
Martin O'Neill takes charge of Sunderland for the first time in Sunday's other match when his new team hosts Blackburn. O'Neill is hoping striker Nicklas Bendtner and defender Phil Bardsley are fit for selection, although Bendtner has not trained all week because of a groin problem and Bardsley has sustained a recurrence of an ankle injury. Midfielder Lee Cattermole is suspended.
Mikel Arteta could come up against his former teammates when Arsenal hosts Everton on Saturday, looking for the win that would take the Gunners up to fourth place if Chelsea loses to City.
Also Saturday, Liverpool hosts Queens Park Rangers, Newcastle is at Norwich, Aston Villa is at Bolton, Fulham is at Swansea, and Wigan is at West Bromwich Albion.