Sir Alex Ferguson is hoping central defender Rio Ferdinand will be fit for Manchester United's Premier League trip to Stoke on Saturday.

Ferdinand injured a hamstring during the opening game at West Brom and although he returned for the win at Bolton earlier this month, he has then been sidelined for three games with a calf problem.

United have not missed the 32-year-old too much, establishing a two-point lead at the top of the table whilst also marching into the Carling Cup fourth round with a victory over Ferdinand's former club Leeds on Tuesday. "I'm hoping Rio will be okay for Saturday," said Ferguson.

However, as well as the Red Devils have done in Ferdinand's absence, Ferguson believes a visit to the Britannia Stadium is one of those occasions when experience is vital. The United boss has already pinpointed Stoke as being one of the top flight's emerging powers despite their four-goal hammering at Sunderland on Sunday.

And, speaking to www.manutd.com, Ferguson would like to have Ferdinand back to offer some reassurance to his youthful squad.

"When you go to Stoke you need a bit of experience," he added.

"Rio came into the team when we played at Bolton and gave us that experience, so we hope he'll be fit for Saturday."

As skipper Nemanja Vidic is also sidelined and Brazilian full-back Rafael is ruled out with a shoulder problem, United do not have a huge amount of options at the back.

Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia were pressed into service in a strange-looking back four at Elland Road and they were joined by Dimitar Berbatov once 19-year-old debutant Eziekel Fryers had limped off with cramp.

And if Ferdinand is available this weekend, in-form Phil Jones would probably switch to full-back as England's Chris Smalling is doubtful with a groin injury.

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