Defending champions Manchester United begin the 50th League Cup final as hot favourites to take home the trophy for the fourth time. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, upbeat after the midweek victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford, aim to defend the silverware won on penalties against Tottenham Hotspur one year ago.
Make no mistake, the Carling Cup represents United’s strongest shot at silverware this season with the club lying a point behind Chelsea in the Premier League and the Champions League only likely to get tougher should the club progress next week. In a season of inconsistency United’s fourth ranked trophy remains important to both club and fans.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s selection, coloured both by absentees and considerations at home and abroad, may er on the side of rotation. The United manager is without the injured Anderson, Owen Hargreaves, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs. Additionally, winger Nani sits out the game following his red card against the same opponents last month.
Ferguson must also consider which, if any, of his leading players requires a rest. The biggest question surrounds Wayne Rooney, who is in wonderful form but has also played a lot of football in recent weeks. Should Rooney start on the bench, then Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen are likely to come into the side.
The manager, who rested Edwin van der Sar against West Ham, must also choose between the great Dutchman, his midweek replacement Ben Foster and the Pole Tomasz Kuszczak between the sticks.
“I have three good goalkeepers and I need to choose the right one,” Ferguson said on Thursday.
“I gave Edwin the rest on Tuesday because he has come through quite a tough period with his injury and also his family situation.
“He has not missed a game, including all the midweek ones, so this week was an opportunity to give him a rest. Now I have to consider what is the right thing to do on Sunday.”
In midfield Michael Carrick will start, with suspension against Milan looming. Ferguson will pair the England international with Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes or Darron Gibson. With Nani suspended, Ferguson will pick two from three of Ji-Sung Park, Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan on the wings.
It’s a difficult question of balance, with Villa in good form but United facing more important priorities in the coming weeks.
“I’m thinking about the younger ones,” added Ferguson.
“There’s two or three that come into that category like Darron Gibson, Jonny Evans and Rafa Da Silva. They have to be considered. But we want to win the cup. It would be nice to win the cup having got there.
“Being at Wembley is an occasion and we have got this opportunity of winning something. The only way you can enjoy Wembley is by winning — it’s not a nice day if you lose.”
Ferguson, of course, has respect both for Villa’s progress and their manager Martin O’Neil, who is often seen as a potential replacement for the Scot on retirement.
The Irishman is in touching distance of taking Villa into the Champions League, with the Midlanders just a point off Manchester City in fourth place. It should make for an attractive and keenly fought final.
“We recognise very seriously the challenge from Aston Villa,” added Ferguson.
“When you think of the team Martin O’Neill inherited and compare it with the team he has got now it’s completely different in every department.
“He has brought consistency to them. He doesn’t make many changes and it could be a successful season.”
United fans hope that the success begins on Monday.