Sir Alex Ferguson offered a bleak outlook on Manchester United's injury crisis after their defensive frailties resulted in today's 3-0 thrashing by Fulham.
Ferguson admitted there is "no light at the end of the tunnel'' as United slumped to their fifth defeat of the campaign, squandering the chance to join Chelsea at the top of the Barclays Premier League table. They endured only four losses throughout the whole of last season when they marched to a third successive title.
Seven defenders, including Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, have been lost to the treatment room and Ferguson admitted his side will fade from contention if their injury woes fail to improve. "The way the league is at the moment I hope today is not too damaging. I hope it doesn't cost us the league,'' he told MUTV.
"We'll have to get our defenders back to give us a proper chance of going for the league, there's no question of that. But if we get them back we'll be back in it. The quicker they're back the better. They're doing their best. The medical team and physios are working overtime to get them back. There's no light at the end of the tunnel at the moment, that's for sure.''
Vidic's failure to recover from a calf strain saw United field a feeble three-man defence consisting of midfielders Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher and rookie Ritchie De Laet. And Fulham, playing with confidence and belief, capitalised with goals from Danny Murphy, Bobby Zamora and Damien Duff to complete their second successive rout of United.
Ferguson, however, refused to blame his players as the crippling injury rate finally caught up with them at Craven Cottage. "There was a fragility at the back and we couldn't do anything about that,'' he said.
"You have to have sympathy for the players in that respect. It's difficult to play midfielders at centre back and Ritchie de Laet is only 21 years of age. He's not got the experience yet needed for these type of matches.
"Of course it was a terribly soft goal for the first one and that gave them the platform to build on. The goal after half-time took care of us. It was a poor decision by the referee for the third goal.
"We couldn't get behind Fulham at all and their defence is very well organised and it was a difficult day for us. The first goal was important for them but it was a bad one for us. It was an uphill fight after that.
"To concede 20 seconds into the second-half killed the game. We didn'tanticipate that. The players are maybe feeling a bit sorry for themselves at the moment because of the situation they're in.
"But the quality of the football wasn't as good as it normally is. The fragile nature of the players at the back, with midfielders playing in defence, has left them feeling sorry for themselves a bit.''
Roy Hodgson admitted Fulham were helped by the makeshift look to United's rearguard but praised their efficiency in putting them to the sword. "We were playing against a wounded Manchester United today and that worked in our favour,'' he said. "But I can't ask any more of our team than to beat who is front of them and to play as well as they can.''
Zamora inspired the victory, scoring the second, setting up the third and proving irresistible all afternoon to continue his rich vein of form. "Last year Bobby played well and was a large part in our success but the goals eluded him. This year they haven't,'' said Hodgson.
"We're delighted with him. Bobby has never stopped working, even when he needed a goal. I'm getting the best of both worlds now and that's raising his status as a player in the country. Everyone is taking notice and recognising the things he can do on the pitch.''