Sir Alex Ferguson will resist any temptation to rest his star players ahead of Manchester United’s trip to Blackburn Rovers. The Reds require just a single point to seal this season’s Premier League title and a 19th domestic championship, eclipsing Liverpool’s record in the process. But Ferguson says he will play his full strength side against Rovers, with just two weeks remaining before the Champions League final.
The Scot can boast a full squad for the tie as his players gear up for the Wembley showpiece at Wembley, with the returning Darren Fletcher set to feature after completing an hour in the reserves on Thursday night. Ferguson dismissed any thought of resting key players, although the United boss hinted that goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar may sit out the tie.
“We must approach the game the right way and play our strongest team,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“It’s always a difficult game and Blackburn are fighting [to stay up]. They probably need a point. They’ll be trying their utmost to get that point or even beat us. We must put in the same effort. It’s a hard game for both teams but we go there with confidence after last Sunday’s win over Chelsea which was a great performance by us and we need another like that.
“Given the programme he’s been through in the last few weeks, this may be an opportunity to give [van der Sar] a break. They’ve all been important games.”
Ferguson’s comments raise the spectre of the Reds’ boss fielding a reserve team against Blackpool at Old Trafford next weekend as United seek to complete the season unbeaten at home, while the Tangerines chase survival. It promises to be a controversial selection; one that the Premier League may choose to monitor closely.
Indeed, Mexican striker Javier Hernández, who has now featured in 43 matches during his first season at Old Trafford, may be given an extended summer break. The striker leaves for the Gold Cup in June and will miss United’s pre-season tour to the United States before returning to Carrington for training in late July.
“Once he plays in the Gold Cup, Javier will be given a proper rest and we will take it up from there,” said Ferguson.
“His performances in training and in games suggests there’s no tiredness at all but we will keep monitoring that. If we get the result tomorrow he will get the rest. If we don’t then he will play next Sunday.”
Ferguson is also likely to add Fletcher to the bench for the Rovers tie after the Scotland captain featured in United reserves’ 2-1 defeat to Blackburn in midweek. Fletcher has missed the best part of Untied’s run-in with a mystery virus but is now in contention to feature in the Champions League final too.
“He played over an hour on Wednesday [for the Reserves]. These kinds of games will hopefully bring him to the level for the final of a European Cup,” added the 69-year-old United boss.
“Hopefully he gets a bit tomorrow, some more on Monday for the Reserves and again against Blackpool next Sunday. There’s also Gary Neville’s testimonial game. There are opportunities to increase his fitness so we’ve got to give him the chance. He’s back training every day. He’s over his virus – it’s just a matter of getting that strength and speed to his game. He’s got the desire to do it.”
The Rovers game is, of course, one in which United should finally overtake Liverpool as the most successful in the land – at least in terms of domestic league titles. While Ferguson’s outfit has long “knocked Liverpool off their perch”, the Scot claims that continuing to win trophies is all that matters. And with Liverpool experiencing a renaissance under Kenny Dalglish, Ferguson says that the Premier League is set to get tougher in the coming seasons.
“I knew it [getting to 19] would happen at some point because of the history of the club,” added the Scot.
“There is a good structure here. We still produce young players really well and our scouting is good in terms of getting young players into the club at the right time. It would have happened anyway whether that was this year, next year or in 10 years’ time. The history and capability of the club would always have given us a chance.
“Liverpool will be galvanised next season I am sure of that. Kenny has signed a three-year contract that settles the club down and there will be plans. It just makes it more interesting next year. We have spoken for years about the big four but teams like Tottenham have not got back into the Champions League this year and they have had a fantastic season.
“It is going to be really difficult next year. It is going to be very difficult to get 90 points again because of the improvement of teams in the middle and towards the bottom of the Premier League.
“There has been an increase in desire from teams in those positions because the only place you can ever make money in English football is the Premier League.”
Meanwhile, Rovers probably require a single point for safety, raising the spectre of a tame Ewood Park draw that suits both parties. Manager Steve Keen is without on loan striker Mame Biram Diouf, who is ineligible to face his parent club. But the 43-year-old can welcome back defender Phil Jones, who has recovered from a back problem, while Michel Salgado and David Dunn are both fit.
Keen’s men are unlikely to face United’s top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov though, with the Bulgarian again set for the United bench. The striker scored five in the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford but has started just one of United’s past 14 fixtures. It is a fall from grace that that corresponds directly to Hernández’ rise.
Yet, on this ground almost around 12 months ago the Bulgarian put in one of his most insipid performances in a Reds shirt, leading to a scoreless draw that ultimately cost United the Premier League title.
It seems unlikely that United, Berbatov or not, will “muck this up” in a similar way on Saturday.
Premier League. Ewood Park, Blackburn. 14 May 2001, 12.45pm.
United – 4411 – Kuszazck; Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, OShea; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: van der Sar, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, Owen, O’Shea, Berbatov, Nani, Anderson, Evra.
Rovers – 442 – Robinson; Olsson, Samba, P Jones, Givet; Emerton, Nzonzi, Hoilett, Pedersen; Roberts, Santa Cruz. Subs from: Bunn, Formica, Mwaruwari, Hanley, Rochina, Andrews, Formica, J Jones, Kalinic, Diouf.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistant referees: Andy Halliday & Scott Ledger
Fourth official: Kevin Friend
Rovers – DDLLWD
United – DWWLWW