Sir Alex Ferguson believes Rio Ferdinand's influence at Manchester United can continue on and off the field for several years having adapted to the back problem that threatened his first team place at Old Trafford.

The United manager, whose side can return to the top of the Premier League against Fulham on Monday night, told Ferdinand in November that he needed to "tailor his game" to retain his place ahead of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling having "lost the yard of pace he had five years ago". Since then, and despite the back problem that has interrupted his career in recent seasons, the 33-year-old has featured regularly and impressively in United's pursuit of a 20th league title and helped Jonny Evans enjoy the most productive spell of his Old Trafford career.

Ferguson said: "It's not surprised me in the sense that he's still young for a centre- back. In normal terms you would expect a centre-back with his athleticism to play well into their thirties anyway. But he had the back problem which we all know about. So we've had to manage that and by managing it properly he has adapted really well to it.

"If you look to the other week – I didn't want to play him against Bilbao, but with Jones calling off with flu, I played him and he played on the Sunday also. So he's adapting really well to the challenge of making sure he is fit and fresh to play in the games we need him. I think it's all down to how he feels physically and what he is doing at the moment is good. He has no issues at all. I think from time to time he gets the odd tweak in his back and we have to manage it and look after it."

Ferdinand's contract at United expires at the end of next season and there has been reported interest in the England international from Major League Soccer. Ferguson, however, believes the defender has an invaluable role to play in the development of United's younger players.

He said: "I keep thinking that I signed Rio three or four years ago. I forget he's been here for almost 10 years. He has taken on that role of the influential person in the dressing room. He's great in the dressing room with the players. He's brilliant. It is an advantage if you can keep the older players long enough for their influence to spread because in the modern game it's difficult to keep players for more than five or six years. It's not easy but the longer they stay here the better the influence spreads to them and they can take over from the older players as they disappear."

Smalling, Jones, Tom Cleverley, Paul Pogba and Fabio da Silva are all available for the Fulham game having continued their recovery from injuries against Aston Villa reserves last week. Nani and Michael Owen, as well as long-term absentee Nemanja Vidic, will again miss out but are expected to return to training this week. Ferguson claims Owen, despite making only four appearances this season, can still have an influence on the destiny of the title.

"He came back into our training a couple of weeks ago and then after one of the sessions he did some physical work with the sports science team and overdid it. So it knocked him back a few days. But he's back in sync again and he should be joining us this week," Ferguson said. "If you think about ever needing a player to score an important goal is there anyone better than Michael Owen? He will be a really welcome addition to our squad, even if it were to be for the last few games of the season."

Manchester United (probable) De Gea; Jones, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs; Welbeck, Rooney, Hernández.

Fulham (probable) Schwarzer; Kelly, Hangeland, Senderos, Riise; Ruiz, Diarra, Dembélé, Dempsey; Johnson, Pogrebnyak.