The Magic of the Cup,: jumpers for goalposts, Old Etonians versus Wanderers, Ronnie Radford, the Crazy Gang … Manchester United v Millwall, 2004? The most romantic tournament in the world. Except, of course, there is no longer any flight of fancy. The Cup is dead, long live anything else.
That is certainly the sentiment at Old Trafford where Sir Alex Ferguson has long since given up any pretence that the FA Cup – the world’s oldest surviving football tournament – is anything but a distraction from more important tasks at hand. It is a sad indictment on a unique competition.
And yet there is some logic in Ferguson’s assessment, with the Scot regularly using the FA Cup as a proving ground for youngsters, those that need minutes, and players coming back from injury. Saturday’s tea-time fixture with West Ham United at Upton Park is likely to be different despite a large contingent of United fans heading south.
Yet, nine years on from United’s last triumph in this tournament, there is also a sense that the club is due a victory. Last season’s fourth round defeat to Liverpool was just one in a now growing list of FA Cup disappointments. Not since 2007 has United reached the final – the late defeat to Chelsea – and that was three years past the last occasion on which the Reds actually lifted the trophy.
What, then, of United’s approach to this year’s tournament? With Ferguson’s men safely into a Round of 16 European tie with Real Madrid, and seven points clear of Manchester City in the Premier League, could the Scot change the strategy of the past decade and send his strongest team out again the Hammers?
History says that is unlikely, although such is the depth of Ferguson’s squad that United remain narrow favourites to win in East London whatever the selection. More to the point, the Scot says that he will field a strong side at Upton Park, after watching his team spend nearly a decade without a cup win.
“The cup is a tournament where form doesn’t necessarily win games, luck has a lot to do with it,” claimed Ferguson on Friday.
“We’ve had some really difficult ties over last three or four years. You hope first of all you’re going to be at home in the draw, then you want a draw you can get through. But this is a particularly hard one so I don’t think we’ll make too many changes.”
In recent years United has drawn a succession of Premier League opponents in the FA Cup, although the defeat to Leeds United in 2010 is etched into the memory. Ferguson’s decision to field a make-shift side handed the old rivals an initiative and an infamous victory at Old Trafford.
“We got to the semi-final against City but we’ve had some hard draws – twice away to Liverpool, away to City and a home tie with Leeds, when I rested a few players and we were caught short,” adds Ferguson.
“Chelsea have been fantastic, though I thought they were lucky to beat us in the final when Drogba scored late on. We lost on penalty kicks to Arsenal, which everyone remembers was a travesty of a result. But I think with a club like ours, the closer we get to Wembley, the better we become.”
Whatever the claim to the opposite Ferguson will certainly make changes on Saturday, with neither Robin van Persie, Michael Carrick nor Patrice Evra likely to play. Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney will sit out another fortnight and Nani did not travel south despite returning to full training this week.
And with Anders Lindegaard, Darren Fletcher, Danny Welbeck, Nemanja Vidic and Alexander Büttner all due match time Ferguson will make six or seven changes from the side that beat Wigan Athletic on New Year’s Day. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should both feature.
“Wayne Rooney is still injured,” confirmed the 71-year-old Scot.
“I’m surprised, it’s been longer than we thought it would be. He was meant to be back training but he’s not. It’s nothing serious but it looks like he’s going to be out for another two weeks or so. Nani is expected to start training today, and Phil Jones is available against West Ham. Everyone else is OK I think. ”
Meanwhile, West Ham captain Kevin Nolan and defender James Collins will return after suspension, but Joey O’Brien is a doubtful. On-loan Liverpool striker Andy Carroll and midfielder Mohamed Diame are both unavailable.
Returning midfielder Joe Cole could make his second debut for West Ham – the club from whom Ferguson once tried to acquire a teenage Cole 15 years ago.
The match will also represent a return to the east end for Rio Ferdinand who, in the more than a decade with the Reds, is yet to win the FA Cup. Ferdinand missed the 2004 victory while suspended for missing a mandatory test.
It is unlikely to be a comfortable afternoon for the veteran defender, if selected, although United’s recent record against the Hammers is outstanding. Ferguson’s side has won eight of the past nine meetings between these sides, although West Ham did soundly beat a youthful United side in the Carling Cup two years ago.
Few expect a repeat of that 4-0 victory, but then again memories of Paolo Di Canio’s cup winner past Fabien Barthez at Old Trafford in 2001 are still shockingly fresh. And for those who believe in omens, good or bad: Cole played for the Hammers that day.
West Ham United v Manchester United – FA Cup third round, Upton Park – Saturday 5 January 2013, 5.15pm
West Ham (4-5-1): Jaaskelainen; Reid, Tomkins, Spence, Demel; Jarvis, Noble, Collison, Taylor; Cole, Vaz Te. Subs from: Spiegel, Spence, Diarra, Lletget, Maiga, Lee, O’Neil, Chamakh, Maguire
United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Jones, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner; Cleverley, Fletcher; Young, Kagawa, Welbeck; Hernandez. Subs from: De Gea, Wootton, Evra, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Carrick, Scholes, Valencia, Welbeck, Powell, Macheda, van Persie, Giggs
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistant Referees: Simon Beck & Stuart Burt
Fourth Official: Kevin Friend
West Ham: WLDLLW
Head to Head
Last 10: West Ham 2, United 8, Draw 0
Overall: West Ham 42, United 57, Draw 24