Owen Hargreaves in sight of his Manchester United return

Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has earmarked Owen Hargreaves for a return to action in early November, news that will be as warmly greeted by England supporters as those at Old Trafford.

Hargreaves has been sidelined for almost a year with tendinitis in both knees, but Ferguson hopes to have the England midfield player fit in time for the Champions League group B match at home to CSKA Moscow on November 3.

Given that he has insisted that he will not rush the player back for fear of jeopardising his recovery, however, Ferguson’s forecast may be slightly optimistic.

Hargreaves is scheduled to return to Manchester on Thursday week from the United States, where he has been recuperating after operations on both knees.

Having barely kicked a ball since his previous appearance for United on September 21 last year, the prospect of Hargreaves getting up to speed in the space of six weeks seems improbable, but Ferguson is confident about the player’s imminent return.

With England lacking a natural holding midfield player, the expected return of Hargreaves will also be a timely boost to Fabio Capello, the national team manager, before the World Cup finals in South Africa next summer.

Asked about why he included Hargreaves in his Champions League squad at the expense of Zoran Tosic, the Serbia winger, Ferguson said: “It was a dilemma, but we came down on the side of Hargreaves because, having taken medical advice, we think he will be available for the last three Champions League [group] games.

“That will be the time when we want to push him back into action. And he is such a versatile player, a man who can play in so many positions, that he could be a very important player for us at that time of the season.”

In the absence of Hargreaves, United have relied on Darren Fletcher to bring bite to their midfield, with Ferguson launching a staunch defence of the Scotland player before the Barclays Premier League champions’ trip to face an in-form Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane this evening.

Fletcher was the focus of Arsène Wenger’s ire after Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, when the Arsenal manager accused United — and, by inference, Fletcher — of “anti-football” tactics by going out to foul his players deliberately, but Ferguson has dismissed the Frenchman’s claims.

“I think he [Wenger] was a bit agitated right from the start,” the United manager said. “He knew it was a big game for them. It was a bigger game for Arsenal than it was for United because the last two or three seasons had been disappointing for them.

“Fletcher was fantastic. I said right after the game that, for me, he was the star man. Wayne Rooney, who got the man of the match [award], said it should have gone to Fletcher and we all agreed.

“Darren is one of the most honest and fair players in the game. Because he wins the ball and he does it fairly, maybe that has annoyed him [Wenger].”

Spurs may prove as troublesome opposition tonight as Arsenal did for United, with Ferguson claiming that he sees no reason why Harry Redknapp’s team cannot sustain their challenge for a top-four finish this season.

“I think they can [sustain it],” Ferguson said. “First of all, getting a good start is always important for a team that is rising. I’ve watched a couple of their videos and they are certainly going to be a handful for us.

“It’s difficult to say at this stage whether they will be the strongest challengers to the top four, but Spurs and Man City are probably ahead of the rest at the moment.”

Redknapp believes the United game, and the trip to Chelsea a week tomorrow, will define whether his team are capable of maintaining their push for a European place. “I would take four points from the next two games, then we would all start believing if we did that, but it’s two tough games,” he said.

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