The Montreal Impact have most of their back line healthy again, just in time for a third attempt at beating the powerful New York Red Bulls.
Former AC Milan star Alessandro Nesta is ready to make his Major League Soccer debut, while Nelson Rivas and Matteo Ferrari will return from injuries when Montreal (7-13-3) plays host to the Eastern Conference-leading Red Bulls (11-5-5) at what could be a sellout crowd at Saputo Stadium on Saturday night.
The Red Bulls pounded the Impact 5-2 in New York on March 31 and edged them 2-1 in Montreal on May 19 despite being down a man.
"It seems every time we play them we play well but not completely enough to come out with something," Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier said Friday. "This is the third time and at least we can finish this series off with a victory against them."
New York has a ton of firepower in French scoring star Thierry Henry, who had his first MLS hat-trick against the Impact, former Barcelona star Rafael Marquez and sniper Kenny Cooper. They recently added big forward Sebastien Le Toux from the Vancouver Whitecaps.
But Montreal, which has surrendered a league-worst 42 goals, can now counter with a central defence of Nesta and Rivas, with rangy Hassoun Camara pushed over to right back and Jeb Brovsky on the left side. Ferrari is expected to come in as a substitute in the second half.
Forward Andrew Wenger is also back from a hamstring injury, but won't start.
"When they were out, all the guys committed themselves in a good way and we pushed really well, but these are going to be key guys and they're going to help us," said coach Jesse Marsch.
Camara and veteran Shavar Thomas have filled in at centre back while Rivas (abdominal strain) and Ferrari (thigh) recovered from injuries and Nesta worked himself into shape.
The 36-year-old Nesta, a four-time defender of the year in Italy's Serie-A, got his first action in a 1-1 draw in a friendly match Tuesday with French club Lyon. He looked ready to take command at the back.
"He's seen a lot, he's played in huge games and he's had a career where he was one of the best defenders in the world," said Impact captain and midfielder Davy Arnaud. "The way he talks to people and organizes is very important, because at times this year maybe we haven't been as vocal as we'd want to be on the field."
They should also make Montreal better at defending on set piece plays, a key weakness this season.
"The more guys you can put on the field that can physically handle the matchups and deal with those moments the better," added Marsch. "Now I think we'll be at the point where we have more guys in there that can be more successful in those duels."
Marsch wanted to keep Camara in the starting 11 for his skill at set pieces at both ends of the field.
Ferrari is looking forward to return for the final 11 matches of the regular season, when the club will need a big push for any hope of making the playoffs.
"We had a lot of difficult situations on the defence and you feel bad when you're injured because you can't help the team," he said. "But now my injury is in the past and we have Nesta and Nelson, and Andrew is back, so I think our team is good.
"Alessandro has a lot of experience and he can only make the team better. I think he'll play a good game. He's emotional because it's a first game in MLS for him, but he's ready. I saw him in training. No problem."
The only lingering injuries on the club are to right back Zarek Valentin, who has a sprained ankle, and forward Bernardo Corradi, who is out for the season with a torn knee ligament.
The Lyon exhibition gave the coach a chance to use Wenger in a two-man front with Italian veteran Marco Di Vaio and it paid off as the top pick in the MLS SuperDraft scored an impressive goal.
But Marsch will stick with Di Vaio as the lone forward to start because Wenger may not be ready to play a full 90 minutes. He may put them together in a 4-4-2 system in the second half. Di Vaio, the Impact's sole designated player, has yet to score in seven MLS games.
A report from Italy this week said Di Vaio and the manager of his former team Bologna, Marcello Sanfelice, may face suspensions of between three to six months for failing to report suspected fraud in connection with an investigation into match-fixing. Bologna captain Daniele Portanova faces a three-year ban if found guilty off fraud in connection with the club's 4-0 loss at home to Bari in May, 2011. A verdict is expected Aug. 8 or Aug 9.
Di Vaio's lawyer told reporters he did nothing wrong.
"I was told not to comment, but I'm not worried," said Marsch. "It's just something he's got to take care of."
New York signed former Everton forward Tim Cahill as a third designated player this week, but the Australian is not expected to receive his visa in time to play.