Manchester United have been dealt a Champions League hammer blow, with Ryan Giggs ruled out for four weeks with a fractured arm.
Although Sir Alex Ferguson sounded optimistic immediately after United’s draw at Aston Villa on Wednesday, the delicate way Giggs held his right arm after the second-half collision with Steve Sidwell and the fact he left for an X-ray with his arm in a sling suggested bad news was on its way.
It duly arrived Thursday afternoon, along with the knowledge Giggs will miss both legs of the Champions League encounter with AC Milan – and a reunion with old friend David Beckham – the Carling Cup final against Villa at Wembley on February 28, plus a sequence of key Premier League matches.
The only good news is that a four week absence suggests the damage is relatively minor and Giggs should be back before the crunch encounter with Liverpool at Old Trafford on March 31, plus the Champions League quarter-finals the following month, if Ferguson’s team make it that far.
While Giggs no longer features in every Red Devils game, the 36-year-old’s importance cannot be underestimated.
Arguably, the veteran Welshman is playing to a more consistent level than he has done in his entire career and with 11 league titles in a gargantuan trophy collection, his experience at key points in the season is invaluable.
In addition, it provides Ferguson with a double headache in terms of his wide players because Nani must now serve a three-match ban following his dismissal for a reckless tackle on Stiliyan Petrov.
Although the suspension only applies to domestic matches, as Giggs will also be missing when United tackle Everton on February 20 and West Ham three days later, plus the Carling Cup showpiece, Ferguson will have to rely on Antonio Valencia to provide genuine width, unless he turns to the largely untested Gabriel Obertan.
The news about Giggs put a dampner on what had been a pretty successful night for Ferguson’s team.
Despite playing with 10 men for an hour, they were the more convincing side at Villa Park and looked like the team most likely to gain victory.
Even though three points did not come, Chelsea’s surprise defeat at Everton allowed them to move within a point of the leaders with 12 games remaining, one of which is what looks like being a hugely important clash of the top two at Old Trafford on April 3.
Not that Edwin van der Sar ever viewed it as a two-horse race, not even after Arsenal had been mauled by United and Chelsea on successive weekends.
“There is a little bit of a gap between us but Arsenal are still around,” said the Dutchman.
“But really, we are not looking to anyone else.
“We will concentrate on ourselves and hopefully we can continue this workrate and quality of play we have shown in the last couple of weeks.”
Although he will lament the loss of Giggs and Nani, Ferguson will have Rio Ferdinand back for the San Siro tussle and after suggesting Nemanja Vidic was nearing full fitness following a nerve problem last week, the Serbian might also be available.
Crucially, his side also have virtually an entire week to prepare following that unexpected FA Cup third round exit against Leeds last month.
“In terms of preparing for a European tie we are pleased to have a free weekend,” said Ferguson.
“AC Milan are playing on Friday night. That is the kind of help European teams get from their countries. We don’t get that here.
“By fortune we don’t have a game on Saturday because we are out of the FA Cup and we are going to take full advantage of it.
“The players will have a couple of days off because they have worked hard and we will start again on Saturday.”