Time for the stand-ins to stand up

Posted by Mark Payne

Matthew Peters/Getty ImagesSir Alex Ferguson's defensive stalwarts are running on fumes.

After a challenging period, which has seen Manchester United go from being treble contenders to the verge of elimination from two competitions in eight short days, a worrying trend has emerged. United have developed a nasty habit of conceding late goals and are starting to flag late in games. If they are not careful, it could ruin their season.

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The comeback is as much a part of Manchester United as Bobby Charlton's comb-over or red shirts and white shorts. During the Sir Alex Ferguson era, United have forged a reputation as late victors which has only been enhanced by the Robin van Persie-inspired antics of this season. However, United have also been victim to late goals in the past, and if they aren't careful, they will be again.

The 2-2 draw at Old Trafford against Chelsea was the second match in succession in which United have conceded two second half goals and it has thrown a bit of a spanner into the works. The fixture list is now so congested that no date can be found to play the match and a cluttered week looms somewhere on the horizon.

According to the EA Sports performance index, the top four defenders in the Premier League this year are Patrice Evra, Leighton Baines, Rafael da Silva and Jonny Evans. They may also be the most-overplayed men in the division. Those watching the FA Cup tie in Manchester bore witness to tired players running out of legs.

Ferguson spent brilliantly in last year's summer transfer window and nobody would question the acquisitions of van Persie or Shinji Kagawa. Unfortunately, he neglected to strengthen the defence with the same verve. In fact, one of United's best defensive prospects, Fabio, was sent out on loan.

Midfield veterans Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in midfield have played 14 games and nine, respectively. In contrast, the elder statesmen of the defence, Evra and Rio Ferdinand, have played 27 games and 20 each. Is it any wonder this department is beginning to fray at the edges?

Whereas the midfield backup cast of Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young and Kagawa have all played more than ten games, there is nobody at the back who can match those numbers. England international Chris Smalling has only played eight games this season and new boy Alexander Buttner has made only a solitary performance.

During September and October, United were faced with an injury crisis in defence that pushed Michael Carrick into central defence and could easily have jeopardised United's progress from the Champions League group stages. It was not the first time the treatment room has been full and one wonders if parts of the squad are being rotated properly.

It is a tough old season in England and the days when Liverpool won the league using only 14 players are long gone. By pushing his defenders to the limit week after week, Fergie is putting his dwindling hopes of a League and Cup double in the balance. It is time to let the stand-ins stand up. Otherwise, what are they there for in the first place?

United's defence needs a rest.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne

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