Originally posted on Fox Soccer  |  Last updated 12/31/12
Full-back Rafael is expected to return from a four-match absence with a hamstring injury when Manchester United visit Wigan. Phil Jones could also be available as United manager Sir Alex Ferguson once again prepares to rotate his squad. Ferguson noted Michael Carrick was particularly tired after Saturday's win at West Brom, whilst top scorer Robin van Persie seems certain to be recalled. The New Year's Day clash is expected to come too soon for Wigan's Antolin Alcaraz as he continues his recovery from a groin problem. Antonio Lopez, Ben Watson, on-loan Arsenal winger Ryo Miyaichi and Albert Crusat are also absent with injury. Both Ivan Ramis and Franco Di Santo are available for selection for the Latics after making their returns against Villa. Lerner splashed out almost ?23million to help Lambert rebuild the squad during last summer, with the accent on bringing in up-and-coming young talent. There had been encouraging signs up to a fortnight ago, with Villa reaching the Capital One Cup semi-finals via a 4-1 success at Norwich and then winning 3-1 over Liverpool at Anfield. That victory was achieved with a side having an average age of less than 24 and was the youngest ever fielded in the Premier League. But Villa's lack of experience, due in part to a lengthy and growing injury list, has been highlighted over the festive period with 15 goals conceded without reply in three games. Lerner and Lambert held talks about the approach to be taken next month before and after Saturday's 3-0 home defeat by Wigan left Villa only a point above the Premier League bottom three. Lambert also has the option of trying to offload some of the players who had only played a bit-part role even before becoming injured to bolster funds. The likes of record signing Darren Bent, Charles N'Zogbia, Shay Given and Stephen Ireland have made only a handful of starts this season. Villa have also missed the leadership qualities of skipper Stiliyan Petrov, who continues to battle against acute leukaemia. Lambert retains the backing of the Villa fans and the boos after the latest setback against the Latics were more in frustration at a poor performance rather than being aimed directly at the Scot. There is also no suggestion that his own position is under review, with Lerner recognising the long-term nature of the rebuilding job needed at Villa. Southend are hopeful Britt Assombalonga will be fit to return for their New Year's Day fixture against fellow promotion contenders Gillingham. The Watford loanee, who has scored 12 goals for the Shrimpers so far this term, was forced to sit out Saturday's defeat at Burton with a shin and ankle injury. Assombalonga will undergo a fitness test ahead of the Gills clash, and is expected to go straight into Paul Sturrock's starting line-up if passed fit. Barry Corr replaced Assombalonga in attack, but after the Blues saw their 14-match unbeaten run come to an end at the Pirelli Stadium, Sturrock will be hoping to revert to his winning formula. Mark Phillips made his first appearance following a knee injury as a second-half substitute against the Brewers and is pushing for a start in defence. David Martin and Freddy Eastwood also featured from the bench, giving Sturrock further alternatives. Martin Allen has no injury or suspension concerns, but the Gillingham manager could still make changes. The Gills have been given extra time to prepare for the game following the postponement of their fixture against Northampton, giving Allen the opportunity to weigh up his options following their Boxing Day defeat to Barnet. Allen's players were booed off the pitch after the 1-0 loss and his team are under extra pressure after losing their top spot to Port Vale. Chris Whelpdale, Jack Payne, and Adam Birchall all made substitute appearances against the Bees and are first in line for a recall to the starting line-up. Danny Kedwell, Ben Strevens, and Andy Frampton are further options available to Allen ahead of a stern test against their fellow promotion hopefuls. The Kent club are seeking to improve their recent form which has seen them win only one of their last six games.
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