RIO Ferdinand returns to the Manchester United side for the first time in three months this afternoon, a development which Alex Ferguson hopes will give his defending champions an important edge at the most crucial stage of this season's title race.
The England central defender (31) has finally recovered from the effects of a long-term back problem sustained against Liverpool in October and is expected to start as United compete in the day's only Premier League game, at home to Hull.
Victory will return United to the top of the table, a timely development for Ferguson, given that his team must visit current leaders Arsenal tomorrow week, ahead of Arsene Wenger's side then facing Chelsea a week later.
With such a potentially vital period of games coming up -- and with Ferguson predicting that a total of "only" 82 points could be enough to win the title this season -- the return of a fully fit Ferdinand could only strengthen United's cause.
"If we can put our foot down now there's no question that bringing back our defenders will be our biggest advantage," said Ferguson who, at one stage this season, had eight senior defenders and goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar out injured.
"That will give us stability at the back and it's stability that will give confidence to everybody at the front. Van der Sar's performance against Burnley last week, that composure, that experience, is vital.
"So, with Rio back, it's looking much better for us now. It's a big boost to have him back. It's been the weakest part of our game this season, losing Van der Sar, (Nemanja) Vidic, Ferdinand, John O'Shea, (Gary) Neville, Wes Brown and Jonny Evans, too. It's been a rough time for us.
"So, to get them all back -- obviously, we're hoping Vidic will be back in the next couple of weeks -- can only be good for us.
"The title race is looking more complicated this season. I think it's going to be the lowest points total to win the title for a while. Maybe 82 will do it, whereas we won it with 90 last season. It's going to be a tough race.
"What's made it that way is the number of teams who are challenging to get into the top four. And, of course Arsenal's consistency in the past few weeks has made it a three-way fight at the top.
"They are winning games now and that underlines what I've been saying about the need for consistency of results. That's what will give any of the front-runners a chance this season."
Forward Dimitar Berbatov is also available this afternoon, after missing last weekend's win over Burnley with a knee injury. Ferguson has spoken of the need to offer Wayne Rooney some rest in the near future with the striker having already appeared in 32 games for club and country so far this season.
However, despite the manager having spoken in glowing terms about newcomer Mame Biram Diouf and having Berbatov available, it would represent something of a gamble to rest Rooney today.
Meanwhile, Ferguson has refused to become embroiled in the growing controversy surrounding his former striker Carlos Tevez and United defender Gary Neville. The pair have traded insults in the media this week and also during City's 2-1 Carling Cup first-leg victory over United at Eastlands on Tuesday.
"I'm not interested. He's not our player any more. I've nothing to say about it at all," Ferguson said. "Players argue with each other and have a go at each other time and time again, it's not an issue for us."
Asked whether he was disappointed with Neville's conduct during the stormy first leg, which included a one-fingered gesture at Tevez, Ferguson replied: "No. What conduct? I didn't see that at all."
Ferguson's refusal to discuss the issue comes in the wake of the FA writing to the Manchester clubs with a warning about their behaviour ahead of the Carling Cup return leg on Wednesday. Would Ferguson be talking to his players ahead of the Old Trafford grudge meeting?
"We are used to big games," snapped Ferguson, with the unavoidable inference that his neighbours are not. Belfast man Evans feels Tevez has got himself worked up about nothing in his spat with United skipper Neville.
Tevez and Neville exchanged gestures immediately after the Argentina star's equaliser in Tuesday's first leg at Eastlands. There has then followed an explosive radio interview in which Tevez labelled Neville a "moron" and "bootlicker" and claimed his former skipper said he was not worth £25m.
That hot-headed reaction goes against the advice from both the FA and local police to cool it ahead of the semi-final decider.
Ferguson has steered clear of the row, while City manager Roberto Mancini has told Tevez to keep his mouth shut in the build-up to the return leg. The trigger was an interview given by Neville in which he backed Ferguson's decision to release Tevez.
In actual fact, Tevez was the one who opted to leave, with Ferguson among those convinced a £40m deal with City -- way in excess of the sum United were obliged to pay to turn a loan into a permanent transfer -- was agreed long before the summer.
And Evans is not convinced Neville actually said what Tevez accused him of saying.
"Gary and Carlos are not team-mates anymore and they don't have to be pals but I think this has all been lost in translation a little bit," said the Northern Ireland international. "I don't think Gary said Carlos wasn't worth £25m.
"He was just saying the manager usually gets these decisions right and we will get on with it. From what I hear, either Carlos has read it wrong or someone is winding him up and he has reacted."(© Independent News Service)