Ferguson: Spurs will give Man United a tough test

STUART CONDIE AP Sports Writer Published:

LONDON (AP) -- Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has predicted that Sunday's Premier League match at Tottenham is his title-chasing team's hardest game in the buildup to next month's clash with leader and local rival Manchester City.

History says otherwise.

United is unbeaten in 25 meetings with Tottenham stretching back to a meaningless end-of-season match in May 2001, and the defending champions will have Wayne Rooney back in action after the England striker missed two games because of a throat infection.

Third-place Tottenham is also coming off a 5-2 loss at Arsenal and will be without suspended midfielder Scott Parker, but Ferguson still expects a stiff challenge.

"It's always a tremendous game given the history of both clubs," Ferguson said. "It's a very important game for us. Look at the rest of the season. You can certainly say we're building up to what could turn out to be a title decider with Manchester City.

"This is our hardest away game, no doubt. Hopefully we can navigate it."

Parker's absence could hit Spurs hard, though. The midfielder has won the club's player of the month award in four of the five months since joining in August.

"It's a blow for us. Scotty's been in great form," Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp said. "But we've got Sandro and Jake Livermore and it's a chance for them to step up to the plate and do the job."

United has had little trouble doing that at White Hart Lane since Willem Korsten scored twice to lead Tottenham to a 3-1 win over a side that had already won the 2000-01 Premier League title.

Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes both played in that match and could make an appearance Sunday, with Giggs having marked his 900th match for United with the winning goal in last weekend's 2-1 win at Norwich -- keeping United two points behind City.

United could be without Chris Smalling after the defender was carried off with a head injury in England's midweek friendly against the Netherlands.

With Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley on the sidelines, Michael Carrick is almost certain to start in midfield against his former club.

"Michael's form for quite a while has been absolutely superb," Ferguson said. "I know he disagrees with me on this but I feel the second half of the season sees him at his best and he's doing well so it's pleasing.

"It's quite refreshing in the modern game to have players who can rely on their ability rather than wanting to project themselves."

Tottenham's hopes of winning the English championship for the first time since 1961 effectively ended at Arsenal and another defeat -- just a fourth in 25 matches -- could leave the team 13 points behind City if the leader beats visiting Bolton as expected.

Redknapp hopes at least to have Rafa van der Vaart, Gareth Bale, Kyle Walker and Ledley King available following concerns over their fitness.

City is close to full strength with midfielder Yaya Toure having returned from the African Cup of Nations and striker Mario Balotelli available after suspension. Former captain Carlos Tevez will soon be fit after returning to training following his lengthy dispute with the club.

Assistant manager David Platt said keeping all those players happy will be one of City's biggest challenges for the rest of the season.

"You will keep 11 happy, another seven slightly happy, and the others will be disappointed when they are not playing in a game," Platt said. "But we have a rotation of the squad, we move it around. We try to do that when we have a full complement of players, to keep everyone nice and healthy."

Also Saturday, Arsenal is at League Cup winner Liverpool, Chelsea is at West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn hosts Aston Villa, Queens Park Rangers hosts Everton, Stoke hosts Norwich, and Wigan hosts Swansea.

On Sunday, Sunderland is at local rival Newcastle and Wolverhampton Wanderers goes to Fulham.