If Manchester United is to beat Aston Villa at Wembley and defend the Carling Cup then it’ll be won in the details. Villa, who beat United 1-0 at Old Trafford in December, is unbeaten in six matches and running into form at the right time. But in Wayne Rooney, United has the world’s hottest striker with 27 goals this campaign. If he plays!
Nemanja Vidic v Gabriel Agbonlahor
The giant Serbian defender has returned to the United fold just in time for the Carling Cup final after missing 11 matches with a nerve problem in his thigh. While many believe the former-Spartak Moscow player is winding down the clock on his United career, the defender’s strength and aerial presence is vital against 14-goal Agbonlahor. The Villa striker, who out-jumped Wes Brown to score at Old Trafford in December, has fail to progress to the international set-up as many in the game expected. But the Birmingham-born striker has the pace to stretch United’s defence on Sunday.
Darren Fletcher v James Milner
England-international Milner is one of the most improved creative players in the Premier League this season and a spot in Fabio Capello’s South Africa bound England squad seems inevitable. But Fletcher, who has faced and bettered the world’s top central midfielders in recent seasons, is vital to United’s dominance of the midfield, especially if Ferguson deploys a 4-4-2 as expected. Should United win the key midfield battles then the trophy will head back up the M6 to Manchester.
Wayne Rooney v Richard Dunne
There is a real possibility that Ferguson will offer Rooney, the world’s most in-form striker, a rest for Sunday’s final. With a midweek England international, Rooney will need to take a break at some point but it’s unlikely that the irrepressible forward will countenance a rest for the first final of the season. In Dunne, Villa picked up a real bargain from Manchester City last summer. The Irish international reads the game as well as anyone but exposed to Rooney’s pace and direct running there is surely only one winner.
Antonio Valencia v Steven Warnock
The Ecuadorian, who turned United’s trip to Milan in his side’s favour 10 days ago with a destructive 30 minute cameo, can boast an excellent first season at Old Trafford. The former-Wigan Athletic player’s old-fashioned direct wing play has produced seven goals and a similar amount of assists this season. United will look to use the width of the Wembley pitch with Valencia the principal outlet. In-form former-Liverpool left-back Warnock is in line for an England call following Ashley Cole’s broken ankle and Wayne Bridge’s withdrawal from the international game.
Sir Alex Ferguson v Martin O’Neil
Many see Northern Irishman O’Neil as a natural successor to Ferguson. Indeed, O’Neil’s intelligence, charisma and love of the game make him a popular figure outside Villa Park. The Villa manager has tinkered his side’s formation this season but with Stuart Downing fit, Ashley Young coming into form and Milner running the Midlander’s midfield, O’Neil will probably deploy a 4-4-2. Ferguson, however, seems to rarely use two strikers in the biggest games. Sunday is different with both Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen undercooked. Could the Scot spring the biggest surprise and play both?