LONDON (AFP) - Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal believes that the absence of England midfielder Michael Carrick has been a significant factor in his side's recent Premier League slump.
Carrick, 33, suffered a calf injury during the 4-2 win over Manchester City on April 12 and has missed the last three matches, all of which United have lost.
United have fallen to Chelsea, Everton and West Bromwich Albion, surprise 1-0 victors at Old Trafford last weekend, having won their previous six matches.
It has undermined their position in the top four and given fifth-place Liverpool encouragement that they could yet catch their rivals in the race for Champions League qualification.
When fit, Carrick has been deployed of late as a holding midfielder in an effective 4-3-3 formation.
Daley Blind is United's only other player suited to that position, but the Netherlands international has been required to fill in at left-back recently due to the absence of the injured Luke Shaw.
Carrick is not expected to recover in time to face Crystal Palace on Saturday, but Van Gaal is hopeful he will be available for the final two matches of the campaign, against Arsenal and Hull City.
"When you see in our team holding midfielders - he is a holding midfielder - we don't have so much," Van Gaal said. "When Blind and Carrick have been injured, we have a big problem.
"Carrick is a player who can read the game and that is what I am looking for; players who can read the game. Not only individually, but also for the team, because the team is more important.
"All the players can read the game individually. Their own role, that is not so difficult, but to see it for the team is more difficult. Not so many players can read the game for the team. That is why they need coaches."
- Ward eyes another scalp -
United have not announced a return date for England international Shaw, who is suffering from a groin strain.
Defenders Marcos Rojo, Rafael and Jonny Evans - who has completed a six-game ban for spitting at Newcastle United's Papiss Cisse - are also likely to miss Saturday's match because of injury.
Victory for United would effectively guarantee them a top-four finish in the event that Liverpool fail to win at newly crowned champions Chelsea on Sunday.
Palace have already beaten Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park this season and full-back Joel Ward is confident of claiming another prized scalp on Saturday.
"It's a great occasion and we've got more than enough about us to upset them," said Ward, who returned from a shin injury last weekend in a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea that allowed Jose Mourinho's team to secure the title.
"Our aim is always to finish as high as we can, so we'll always do that. We won't sit back on what we've got. We want to keep pushing forward and keep on looking forward to the guys above us.
"The fans are a huge part of that and they've been fantastic all season home and away - for the last two seasons. You can't take that away from them. They've been absolutely outstanding and give us a lift every week."
Alan Pardew's side secured their Premier League status with a burst of five wins in six games between late February and early April, but their recent form mirrors United's - the defeat at Chelsea was their third in a row.