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“I hope this defeat doesn’t prove too damaging. We need defenders back to give us a proper chance of challenging for the league.”

- Sir Alex Ferguson
19/12/2009 19:06, Report by Nick Coppack
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Defenders key to title bid

Sir Alex admits life at United could be tough until the club’s defensive injury crisis eases.

The Reds slumped to a 3-0 defeat against Fulham on Saturday, with Sir Alex again forced to play midfielders in the heart of United’s backline.

Seven defenders were unavailable for selection at Craven Cottage – Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans, Gary Neville, Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Rafael are all sidelined – so Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher reprised their central defensive roles. Alongside them was young Belgian defender Ritchie De Laet, making just his sixth appearance at senior level.

And although United’s makeshift defences have largely coped well in recent weeks, Saturday’s reshuffled backline struggled and United suffered a fifth league defeat of the season.

“I hope that loss doesn’t prove too damaging,” Sir Alex told MUTV afterwards. “In other words, I hope it doesn’t cost us the league.

“There was a fragility at the back today, but we couldn’t do anything about that. I have sympathy for my players because it’s difficult for midfielders to play as centre-backs and Ritchie De Laet’s only 20 years of age so he’s not yet got the experience you need for these type of matches.

“The players are feeling a little bit sorry for themselves at the moment because of the situation they find themselves in. But I think it’s obvious that if we get our defenders back we’ll be okay. We need to them back to give us a proper chance of challenging for the league.”

Sir Alex went on to reveal United’s physios and medical staff are “working over-time” to get players off the treatment table and back on the pitch. Some defenders – Jonny Evans and John O'Shea – aren't expected to return until the end of January but others should be back in action before the New Year.

On Friday morning the manager told reporters that Gary Neville and Rafael could return for the Reds’ trip to Hull City on 27 December, while Wes Brown

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