Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has chosen to rest England defender Rio Ferdinand for the Champions League game against Portuguese club Braga. The Old Trafford veteran turns 34 on Wednesday and has been a critical part of Ferguson's back line, particularly in the absence of Serbian international Nemanja Vidic and youngster Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
The long-serving Scot, for whom a tribute to his 26 years in charge will be a statue, unveiled at Old Trafford on 23 November, is hopeful of securing qualification with two rounds of games remaining, which will allow him to further rest key players and focus on the Premier League.
"If we can get the win it's better, but we want to make sure we qualify first. If we do, it gives me options to utilise Smalling and Jones," he explained, adding, "Then we can make sure that Ferdinand is fresh for all these games. I won't have to worry about playing him Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday."
The Red Devils have had a number of injuries to defenders this season, with everyone, including Ferdinand, injured at one point or another. In fact, so severe was the crisis that Ferguson was forced to play England midfielder Michael Carrick in central defence, on occasion.
As of now, Vidic will be unavailable till Christmas and Jones' knee injury means he too is unavailable for this game. Smalling has recovered and is training with the first team but Ferguson will be wary of rushing him into action too soon and risking a long-term relapse.
United are presently on top of Group H, with the maximum of nine points from three games. The three-time Champions League winners need only a point from the game in Portugal to confirm progress to the knock-out stages.
Meanwhile, Ferguson's compatriot, Darren Fletcher, could start against Braga. The 28 year old midfielder has made five appearances this season, after battling an ulcerative colitis condition for 10 months and is still not sure whether he has completely overcome his illness.
"Every day is a battle for me. I have to watch my diet and take certain medication or it could come back again. But I am back quicker than I expected. It has been a lot quicker, but that maybe comes down to experience," Fletcher was quoted as saying.