Sir Alex Ferguson will defy the Premier League and Blackpool’s relegation rivals to put Manchester United’s interests first as the Reds close out the domestic season on Sunday. With the Champions League final less than a week away, Ferguson will field a side of fringe players against Ian Holloway’s relegation-threatened side, despite the threat of a Premier League fine.
It’s a decision for which Ferguson has few apologies with Barcelona able to field reserve sides in the club’s final three La Liga outings. But with up to nine full internationals in the side, Ferguson expects his men to beat Blackpool and end any potential argument with the Premier League over fielding a weakened side.
Ferguson has previously fielded experimental sides in games crucial to relegation-threatened sides, including United’s 1-0 loss to West Ham United at Old Trafford in 2007 and the Reds’ narrow victory over Hull City in 2009.
“Obviously everybody expects me to leave players out and that will be the case,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“I have to think about next week, I have to juggle the balls and make sure I get the right mix and keep the right energies for Barcelona. There are players who need a game anyway. Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes and Anderson will all play. So will Berbatov, Evra and Van der Sar.
“We’ll do our fairest to make sure there’s no criticism of the club. The only thing you could be criticised for is if you lose a game and it affects other teams. That’s when you should be put under scrutiny for the team you picked.
“Against Hull [in 2009] we played all the young players and we won 1-0, so there was no reason to criticise the selection on that occasion. This time it will be the same again. We have to make sure we win.”
Whatever the team selection, or indeed final result, United’s players will pick up the Premier League trophy after the game. It will provoke a party that is saddened only by retirements of Red legends. While Edwin van der Sar will play his last ever match at Old Trafford there is an increasing belief that Paul Scholes will also hang up his boots. Although Ferguson confirmed a new contract has been put to the 36-year-old midfielder, the player’s reticence is widely understood at Old Trafford.
Two of Scholes’ successors, Anderson and Darron Gibson, may play in central midfield, although Darren Fletcher is also set to start on the long road towards full fitness. The Scot is an outside bet for the Champions League final, although with barely 90 minutes reserve football behind him after two months out with a mystery virus Fletcher’s role is more likely to be consigned to the United bench.
Meanwhile, Ferguson will select van der Sar, with the 40-year-old Dutchman having missed United’s draw with Blackburn Rovers last weekend. The ‘keeper has just two matches to play before bringing down the curtain on a wonderful career that has taken him from Ajax to United, via Juventus and Fulham.
“He has been fantastic. Absolutely sensational,” added Ferguson.
“Edwin’s professionalism and dedication have been fabulous. A goalkeeper’s training is completely different from an outfield player. It involves diving about the goalmouth all the time, saving shots and blocks. It is hard to imagine a normal person being able to do that when they were over 40. But he is special. He has something inside him.
“Some people have a certain quality that involves them needing to be a winner all the time. That is what Edwin has been. He has had a great career. He has won four titles with us, Wembley will be his fifth European Cup final and he has more caps than anyone else in Holland. It has been a fantastic career and he is going out at the very top.”
Ahead of van der Sar, Ferguson is likely to field a largely second-string back-four, although Patrice Evra may play after missing two matches with a hamstring problem. Wes Brown, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans will probably make up the defensive unit.
Meanwhile, both Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández will sit out United’s final Premier League game of the season, affording top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov a rare start. The Bulgarian is level with former Red Carlos Tevez in the Premier League scoring charts but has rarely started since Hernández’ emergence in the past three months.
“Javier Hernandez has made it difficult for me to put Dimitar above him,” Ferguson added.
“His performance levels, goals, freshness and pace are fantastic. Dimitar understands that. He never complains. He will play on Sunday and hopefully he will be the top goalscorer.”
Blackpool can win, draw or lose and still be relegated depending on other teams’ results and, perhaps understandably, Holloway has few concerns with United fielding a second-string side. The Blackpool manager had threatened to resign after the Premier League fined his side £25,000 for making 10 changes against Aston Villa earlier this season.
Relegation rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn face each other in the Midlands, Birmingham City face Tottenham Hotspur in London and Wigan Athletic go to Stoke City,
“I believe we can do it, whoever they [United] put out,” said Holloway.
“Maybe the main man up there has written a story that would probably beat Cinderella. All that matters is the dignity, the pride we’ve showed, getting back on track. That’s four games unbeaten, and anyone who’s seen the last four games can tell that Blackpool are back and looking like we did at the start of the season. That was really important to us.
“Blow me down with this fairytale we’re all on, this story that has been unfolding for the last two years. We’ve got to go to Manchester United and probably get a win, and that might not even be enough. I believe it will be, though, because Wolves are at home to Blackburn.”
The Blackpool manager has a full squad from which to choose and may go with the side that beat Bolton Wanderers last weekend.
Meanwhile, for United the party can begin in earnest, even though many of the players who brought a 19th domestic title to Old Trafford will sit out the game. For two – Scholes and van der Sar – it may well be a sad farewell.
Premier League. Old Trafford, Manchester. 22 May 2011, 4pm.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Brown, Evans, Smalling, Evra; Obertan, Anderson, Fletcher, Nani; Berbatov, Owen. Subs from: Kuzsazck, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, O’Shea, Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, OShea, Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney, Hernandez.
Blackpool – 442 – Gilks; Crainey, Eardley, Evatt, Baptiste; Southern, Vaughan, Adam, Puncheon; Taylor-Fletcher, Campbell
Subs from: Cathcart, Beattie, Ormerod, Kingson, Cathcart, Phillips, Reid, Harewood, Ormerod, Beattie.
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistant referees: Peter Kirkup & Dean Mohareb
Fourth official: Mike Jones
United – WWLWWD
Blackpool – LLDDDW