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Preview: United v Chelsea

Ed March 9, 2013 Tags: , Matches 129 comments

Another game, another cup to chase, just five days after Manchester United’s devastating loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League last Tuesday. Chelsea, stumbling from one crisis to another, will hope that it is it a good time to face United; Sir Alex Ferguson has demanded that his team responds to the heaviest set-back in the season to date.

There is no love lost between the managers, of course, with Rafa Benitez boasting the happy knack of irking Ferguson over the past five years. The Scot, meanwhile, insists he takes no pleasure in kicking Benitez “when he is down.” Yeah, right, as the kids might say.

Still, any tension between the coaches on the touchline may help, with the inevitable ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ atmosphere likely on Sunday; from the biggest game at Old Trafford in five years, to the postpartum blues.

And if United’s supporters feel down after the Reds’ unfortunate exit to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real on Tuesday, then the manager also has a job to lift his players. After all, the FA Cup remains important, with United not lifting the trophy in the best part of a decade.

“It is my job to galvanise the troops, who were fantastic on Tuesday and so were the fans,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.

“We owe them a good performance on Sunday. One thing we don’t do is give in. We’ll get up off our backsides and make sure we’re ready for Sunday. A big game’s probably the best thing for us and a home tie as well.

“We have a hard game against good opponents who have a good record in the FA Cup – probably the best in the last decade. We haven’t won it for a while so there’s a good incentive for us. Chelsea, it’s a home draw and I always say that if you get a home draw you’re happy. Hopefully we can navigate that and get through.”

Ferguson is likely to make changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Real on Tuesday. Not least a return to a more recognisable formation, with striker Wayne Rooney almost certain to start despite a week of paper speculation linking the 28-year-old with a move away from Old Trafford.

Doubt’s about Rooney’s Old Trafford future was emphatically rejected by Ferguson on Friday, although cynics will point to similar denials about David Beckham and Ronaldo in recent years. Behind the scenes it is recognised that United could accept a sizeable bid for the former Evertonian in the summer.

Still, with a double to chase, Ferguson is in no mood to ostracise Rooney, who has scored 195 goals in 394 games for the club.

“Wayne will be involved on Sunday,” said the manager.

“He will be here next year, you have my word on that. There is no issue between myself and Wayne Rooney. To suggest we don’t talk is nonsense. He understood the reasons completely. Tactically we got it right. We don’t always get it right, but we definitely did on Tuesday. There are no issues with the player and he will be involved on Sunday.”

Manchester United v Chelsea - FA Cup, Old Trafford - 4.30pm 10 March 2013Meanwhile, Ferguson will rest Ryan Giggs, who played in his 1000th professional game against Real last week. The Welshman drops to the bench, with both Shinji Kagawa and Antonio Valencia in line for a return.

Robin van Persie, who has looked tired in recent weeks, could earn an over-due rest, with Javier Hernández waiting for an opportunity.

In defence Rio Ferdinand is likely to sit out the game, with Ferguson keen to counter Chelsea striker Demba Ba’s physical presence by retaining captain Nemanja Vidić alongside Jonny Evans.

“Giggs won’t play because he was the best player on the pitch on Tuesday. He’s done his bit for us this week. Now we’ll rest him and prepare him for next week. For certain games and now he won’t play on Sunday. He’s done his bit for us. Next week is a different game. He’ll get more rest and then we can prepare him for that one.”

In the meantime the incentive for victory couldn’t be greater, with nine years having past since United’s last triumph in the world’s oldest competition. Victory over Millwall in 2004 was followed by defeat to Arsenal a year later and Chelsea in 2007.

Arsenal’s penalty shoot-out win against United is now widely regarded as one of the least just cup victories, with the Londoners achieving just one shot on target in 120 minutes of action. It was Arsenal’s last trophy – some form of karma, fans might add.

Two years later and Ferguson’s side was beaten in the last minute of extra time by Didier Drogba’s winner for Chelsea, leaving United on 11 cup victories in 141 years.

“I felt we were very unlucky to lose the 2007 final,” Ferguson told Inside United.

“Didier Drogba scored in [almost] the last minute of extra time after we had a very strong penalty shout turned down. I think Ryan Giggs may have forced the ball over the line as well for a goal that wasn’t given. That was tough to take, but that’s football – you win some, you lose some.”

Meanwhile, Chelsea arrives in Manchester having lost to Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League on Thursday night. Raul Rusescu’s penalty gave the Romanians a narrow first-leg lead, heaping further pressure on Benitez. While Europe’s second tier competition is hardly Roman Abramovich’s dream, Chelsea’s inability to challenge on any front this season ensures that the Spanish manager will leave Stamford Bridge in the summer.

No sympathy from Old Trafford for the former Liverpool coach, of course, with Ferguson wryly promising not to take advantage of Benetez’ difficult situation. The Spaniard courted further criticism last week by telling Chelsea supporters that they are “wasting their time” making anti-Benitez banners and worse, that the Stamford Bridge faithful have affected the team’s performances.

Ferguson, meanwhile, will love nothing more than to get Real out of the system quickly, progressing to an FA Cup semi-final draw that includes Wigan Athletic, Manchester City and Millwall or Blackburn Rovers. City aside, United will fancy a shot at the FA Cup final whatever the semi draw.

“In the cold light of day, we’re Manchester United and we have to get on with it,” concludes Ferguson.

“There’s nothing that can be done now. We have an important issue of a quarter-final on Sunday. I’ve cleared my mind. It’s just another day in the history of our club. Not a good day, but another day.”

Match details
Manchester United v Chelsea – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 4.30pm, 10 March 2013.

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea, Rafael, Vidić Evans, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Ferdinand, Büttner, Nani, Powell, Anderson, Giggs, Young, Welbeck, van Persie

Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovich, Cahill, Luiz, Cole; Ramires, Mikel; Oscar, Mata, Hazard; Ba. Subs from: Turnbull, Azpilicueta, Ferreira, Terry, Ake, Bertrand, Marin, Moses, Benayoun, Torres

Match officials
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey, Darren Cann
Fourth Official: Phil Dowd

United: WDWWWL
Chelsea: WDsLWWL

Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Chelsea 3, Draw 1
Overall: United 72, Chelsea 45, Draw 48


Preview: United v Reading

Ed February 18, 2013 Tags: , Matches 86 comments

There was a moment during the chaos of Manchester United’s Premier League fixture with Reading in December that a 4-3 scoreline looked not only unlikely, but preposterous. The two sides would surely score far more than that. Yet, amid two of the worst defensive performances of the current se ason, the sides conspired to see out a goalless second period after seven were struck in the first.

The sides meet in different circumstances on Monday night with an FA Cup quarter final place at stake. Neither likely to defend with such apathy at Old Trafford, even if each has greater priorities in the season ahead.

United, far from fresh after draining encounters against Everton and Real Madrid in the past week, will be much changed. Meanwhile, the visitors’ manager Brian McDermott is likely to prioritise league points with Reading still in the drop zone.

Still, United’s handsome Premier league lead, allied to a positive result in Madrid last Wednesday, ensures that talk of another treble is now rife. Too early, perhaps, but with United in a strong position on three fronts manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s challenge is as much to set expectations for the season to come, as it is a motivational driver.

“I just look at the next match, thinking about winning the next match,” said Ferguson, who may change his entire team for Reading’s visit.

“The reality is don’t get carried away by it, particularly in the FA Cup, anything can happen. You don’t want to be a shock, that’s for sure.

“So Monday, in many people’s eyes, it’s Reading: ‘Yeah, we’ve just been to Madrid, it was a great night and Monday will take care of itself.’ Monday can’t take of itself. We have to take care of it, we have to have performance which respects our opponents and the fact that the FA Cup can produce shocks.”

Manchester United v Reading - FA Cup, Old Trafford - 8pm, 18 February 2013Ferguson will certainly rest forwards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, although the Dutchman has seemingly asked to be involved against Reading.

Meanwhile, with Paul Scholes still suffering from a knee injury and Michael Carrick due a rest, both Anderson and Tom Cleverley could start at Old Trafford. Forwards Nani, Ashley Young and Javier Hernández will rotate into the side.

Goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard could come into the side, although the Danish international was a principle culprit in United shipping three against Reading earlier in the campaign.

Whatever the changes on Monday, Ferguson believes his squad is well equipped to challenge, especially with the quarter-final carrot of a match at home to Chelsea on offer.

“The incentive is there to get to the quarter-finals and I don’t think that will be lost on the players, no matter what side I pick,” added the 71-year-old.

“We’re taking nothing for granted. With an FA Cup tie, you always have to expect the unexpected. It happens so many times, you just don’t want to be a casualty or a shock. We’ve had a few over the years.

“I think there’s a good spirit in the place and they’re all contributing,” he said. “Whatever side I pick, I know we’re expected to qualify.

“That’s what happens with United. It doesn’t matter what team you play, you’re expected to win. But I couldn’t be more pleased than I am at the moment really with the form and the spirit in the place.”

Meanwhile, Reading make the trip north with Premier League status the season’s only real priority, although the Royals arrive in the side’s best form of the season, having lost just one match in the past seven.

The Berkshire side scored four against United in December, with McDermott’s side repeatedly punishing the Reds’ inability to deal with balls delivered from wide areas. Yet, Reading’s adventure at the Madjesky may not be repeated at Old Trafford, especially with McDermott’s side due to take on fellow strugglers Wigan Athletic next Saturday.

Midfielders Jimmy Kebe and Mikele Leigertwood are doubts with injury and unlikely to be risked. Adam Le Fondre and Noel Hunt could start, but veteran Jason Roberts and Alex McCarthy are definitely out.

And if Reading arrive at Old Trafford with alternate priorities, then there is also a risk of McDermott’s side being caught in the headlights. It is a risk exposed in McDermott’s obsequious sycophancy this week.

“Sir Alex Ferguson won’t take anything for granted, there’s no doubt about that,” said the Reading manager. “To move on the way they did from last season, to take that on to the pitch and that hurt, tells you the power of the people there.”

History is also on United’s side too – the Reds have won 10 and lost just one of the 18 previous competitive matches between these sides. Meanwhile, in FA Cup matches United has won six of the past seven.

It points to United’s safe passage and a – potential – quarter final tie against Chelsea to come.

Match details
Manchester United v Reading – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 8pm, 18 February 2013

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Jones, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner; Cleverley, Anderson; Nani, Giggs, Young; Hernández. Subs from: de Gea, Ferdinand, Rafael, Evans, Evra, Nani, Kagawa, Carrick, Valencia, Powell,Cleverley, Welbeck, Rooney, van Persie.

Reading (4-5-1): Federici; Pearce,Mariappa, Harte, Kelly; Hunt, McAnuff, Carrico, Guthrie, Karacan; Pogrebnyak. Subs from: Taylor, Shorey, Morrison, McCleary, Leigertwood, Kebe, Le Fondre, Blackman

Match officials
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistant Referees: Darren England and Steve Child
Fourth Official: Philip Dowd

United: DWWWWD
Reading: WWWDLL

Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Reading 4, Draw 0
Overall: United 9, Reading 1, Draw 7


Ferguson trusts in squad as fans dare to dream

Ed February 18, 2013 Tags: , , , , Opinion 8 comments

“Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage’,” argued Malcolm Gladwell in the peerless Outliers. “Those who are successful are most likely to be given the kinds of opportunities that lead to further success.”

It is a viewpoint with which Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson might agree. After 26 years in the job the Scot not only desires more, but has greater tools with which to achieve success – an incremental benefit that has been challenged only by the Glazer family’s £500 million ownership tariff.

Indeed, Ferguson could make 11 changes against Reading in the FA Cup on Monday night, safe in the knowledge that he can still field a team full of international players against the Berkshire side. And the 71-year-old manager just might make wholesale changes to his team even with United on course to face Chelsea in an FA Cup quarter-final.

It is the surprising strength-in-depth this season – given the paucity of high quality options in central midfield and ageing defenders – allied to a squad resilience that has manager and supporters wondering whether United might be able to achieve something truly special before the campaign is out.

No wonder, with the Reds still in three competitions, that 14 years after Ferguson’s team reached the promised land talk has once again turned to the treble. It has become one of football’s most hackneyed ideals.

It remains unlikely United will recreate 1999 at Wembley on 25 May; after all nothing is secured just yet. United’s return fixture with Real Madrid on 5 March must still be won, while Brian McDermott’s Reading pushed the Reds during the Premier League encounter at the Madjesky in December.  And despite a 12-point Premier League lead Sir Alex cannot count on a trophy regained.

United’s draw with Madrid came with plenty of credit, but also a warning. The home side’s dominance of possession, chances created and midfield reinforces the belief that Ferguson’s side is not without significant flaws.

Yet, says the Scot, his advantage gained since ’99 will come into play as United enters the final third of the campaign. More than a decade on from the treble, Ferguson is nostalgic for more.

“We lost to Middlesbrough in December and we never lost again,” said Sir Alex of the ’99 campaign.

“It was a tough FA Cup run that season, really tough. We were up against Premier League teams in every round. It’s nice to look back at these things and how it was done with the squad of players I had, which is not nearly as strong as the one I have now.

“When we went to the final, Keane and Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury and I had to pull in Jonathan Greening, who had only played once or twice, and he actually got a winner’s medal for sitting on the bench. That gives you an idea of the respective strength of the squads.

“I could have played a completely different team on Wednesday and I think we still would have got a result. It’s not just the four strikers I could change, you could change the entire team now.”

In fact Ferguson may well do so on Monday after the double-header with Real in the Spanish capital and Everton at Old Trafford last weekend. While the FA Cup remains a key target this season, nine years after the club last secured the 140-year-old trophy, the Royals also have more pressing priorities. Ferguson will surely gamble on a wholly different side from that which drew in Madrid.

In fact while United faces some challenging fixtures in the next month Ferguson can justifiably point to a trio of winnable matches against Reading, QPR, and Norwich before José Mourinho’s side arrives at Old Trafford in 16 day’s time.

United head into the period not only sporting good form, but with none of the internal politics running roughshod through Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City camp, that of Chelsea or indeed, Mourinho’s Real squad.

“I feel there’s a good spirit. That’s obvious,” adds Ferguson.

“When you’re successful you have to look at the overall squad – I know there were a lot of players disappointed not playing on Wednesday, I’d be disappointed if they weren’t disappointed, but the ones who weren’t playing were right behind the ones who were playing and that’s good.

“The way I’m looking at is to pick a team to win the next match and it will be a different team against Reading and again against QPR, Norwich and then Madrid.”

In that there is a concern of course, with Ferguson long dubbed “Tinkerbell” for the Scot’s penchant for repetitive change. But there is also a belief that the manager may just be striking the right balance between rotation and stability this season. Not least in Ferguson’s last-minute recognition that deploying a strong side against Everton last weekend’s went a very long way to sealing the Premier League title.

Still, United will be asked stern questions before the season is out, although few will come as tough as those faced at the Bernabéu last Wednesday. European and FA Cup competition aside, Ferguson’s side faces City at Old Trafford on 8 April, Arsenal at Emirates three weeks later and Chelsea on 4 May. Although each could dent the Reds’ ambitions, it is unlikely any will halt Ferguson’s train.

Those fixtures aside, Ferguson will be hugely disappointed if his side drops many more points domestically, while an FA Cup quarter-final draw against Chelsea at Old Trafford – should it come to pass – will disappoint few. Home against anyone ensures United remain in with a chance.

And none will seek success with Ferguson’s vigor. After all, while the details always matter in football, few will work as hard as Ferguson’s team between now and the season’s conclusion. The Scot will have it no other way.

Or as Gladwell put it “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

It is one reason, among many, why Ferguson will fully deploy his accumulated gain between now and the summer.

Project FA Cup

Ed January 27, 2013 Tags: Opinion 33 comments

There is a little something about Manchester United’s renewed relationship with the FA Cup this season. It has been a love affair not always on solid ground over the past decade, but after the Reds’ comfortable victory over Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday evening, thoughts have turned once again to a Wembley final in May. Eight and a half long years since United last lifted the 140-year-old trophy, the hunt appears to be on once again.

True, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has appeared in two finals – losing both – since the Scot’s side secured the FA Cup in 2004. Two further defeats at the semi-final stage, to Manchester City in 2011 and Everton in 2009, has brought scant comfort in a decade of cup disappointment.

But United’s long affinity with the FA Cup – a tournament the club has secured on a record 11 occasions – has been weaker in the past decade. Troublesome draws, bad luck and eyes on greater prizes has played a part in United’s relative sack of success since 2004.

While Ferguson selected a strong side to face City at Wembley two years ago, other priorities took precedent to United’s semi with Everton in 2009. Although, admittedly, there was genuine ill fortune in final defeat to Arsenal in 2005 and Chelsea two years later.

Yet, the past decade is in marked contrast to the earlier part of Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford that brought much joy in the Cup. United claimed the trophy four times in the 1990s – part of two doubles and the 1999 treble.

However, there is a real change in mood at Old Trafford this season, with Ferguson and his players insisting that the Cup is once again a priority despite the heavy workload at home and in European competition.

That Ferguson, together with his senior lieutenants Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, are the only members of the current squad to have tasted Cup glory says much for the barren period. Perhaps, too, the squad’s desire to rectify a perceived imbalance.

“We’ve not done as well as we should have done in the last eight, nine years,” said Giggs in the aftermath on Saturday’s.

“There’s a lot of players desperate to win it. With the history we’ve got in the competition, we should be there, we should be getting to finals, so hopefully this will be the year.”

Safely through to the fifth round after an almost embarrassingly comfortable win on Saturday, United will now face struggling Reading at Old Trafford in three week’s time.

The Reading tie is yet another in a long line of fixtures United has faced against Premier League opposition in recent years. Eight of United’s past 10 FA Cup fixtures have been against top level opponents – including 20 of the past 25 – and each of the last seven ties: Reading, Fulham, West Ham, Liverpool, City, City and Arsenal.

Still, with the Royals in the bottom three and staring into the abyss of relegation from the Premier League the year before a new TV deal kicks in, Ferguson’s side should comfortably progress. After all, Brian McDermott’s side can ill afford to concentrate on anything bar league salvation.

History is with the Reds too – the sides have met 12 times before in the competition, with United having lost just one of those fixtures.

However, Ferguson’s resolve to field strong sides in the competition will be sorely tested in the coming weeks, with United hosting Reading just three days after a physically and emotionally draining Champions League tie against Real in Madrid.

Indeed, a packed schedule up to the European ties surely ensures changes will be made in the FA Cup. United host Southampton at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, before travelling south to meet Fulham in the Premier League next weekend. The international break will the disrupt the squad before Everton come to Manchester in early February.

The schedule may be packed but at least the rate at which Premier League teams have fallen in this season’s competition – 13 of 20 by the fourth round’s conclusion – should make United’s passage a little easier, although Chelsea, Arsenal and City remain in the competition.

And should United continue to progress in both cups supporters’ dreams of another treble, 14 years on from the original, will grow – unlikely as the achievement may have seemed last August.

“We want to win all three. We want to win the treble. It is in our minds,” admits striker Javier Hernández, who’s brace against Fulham proved decisive.

For now fans can enjoy the potential of another FA Cup run – it has, after all, been far too long since United’s captain has climbed Wembley’s steps. Regaining the Premier League, conquering Europe even, may come first, but the Cup still retains a special place more than a century after a first victory in the competition.

“The FA Cup is an important trophy for us this season,” concludes Ferguson. “We haven’t won it for almost 10 years, so we really need to have a big performance this year”

There are few fans that will disagree with that sentiment.

FA Cup fifth round draw:
Huddersfield or Leicester v Wigan Athletic
MK Dons v Barnsley
Oldham v Everton
Luton v Millwall
Arsenal v Blackburn
Manchester City v Leeds
UNITED v Reading
Middlesbrough v Chelsea or Brentford

Preview: United v Fulham

Ed January 26, 2013 Tags: , Matches 53 comments

Another FA Cup tie; another fixture on live TV. Such is the appeal of the world’s most popular club that it is the 37th occasion in a row that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have been selected by the nation’s broadcasters to front Cup coverage – a run that dates back to January 2005.

Saturday evening brings Fulham to Old Trafford, and with Martin Jol’s team comes a former Red – striker Dimitar Berbatov. There will hardly be a dry eye in the house. Except, of course, for those Reds who didn’t take to the Bulgarian during four years in Manchester.

Jol’s side arrives under pressure in the Premier Leauge, although Berbatov has already become a popular figure at Craven Cottage, scoring seven goals in 20 appearances to date. Now just five points off the relegation zone, the Cup represents a distraction for the Londonders – welcome, or not. Indeed, Jol may make rotate his squad for the trip north; there are certainly greater priorities in west London.

The same could be said of Ferguson’s side too, of course, although there appears to be a renewed appetite to secure a 12th FA Cup this season after almost a decade without lifting the old trophy. Replay victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford in the third round has afforded the Reds another home tie and an excellent opportunity to progress.

That only Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have secured the FA Cup among the current squad says much, not only for United’s priorities in the past decade, but a series of tough draws against Premier League opposition. The hat has been no kinder in the current season, then, but there is perhaps a renewed focus on the 150-year-old tournament.

“The boss has given a big message this season – he really wants to win the FA Cup,” defender Patrice Evra told United Review.

“He really wants it and so do we. It is the only trophy that I have not won at Manchester United. That seems impossible given that I am now in my seventh year here. The FA Cup means so much and, one day, I hope I will win it. Hopefully this year.”

Manchester United v Fulham - FA Cup, Old Trafford - 5.30pm 26 January 2013If Ferguson’s team is to progress it will do so without Jonny Evans and Ashley Young, but there is a healthy outlook to the squad after four days warm weather training in Qatar over the past week.

The Scot may still use the tie to rest key players, with the double-header against Real Madrid in the Champions League coming up next month, but Ferguson’s should be a strong side at Old Trafford on Saturday night.

“We had a good week training in Qatar and it was a great time to go there – we couldn’t have picked a better moment actually when you consider the weather we’ve had here,” said Ferguson.

“So it’s worked out very well for us and hopefully we get the benefit from that. It was always the plan at some stage to do that this January. It couldn’t have worked out better for us.

“Jonny Evans and Ashley Young are still not 100% fit. Ashley Young is not far away. He trained a bit in Qatar. Jonny is just taking a bit longer than we thought. But he did a bit of training in Qatar.  The bonus for us, of course, is that Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are both back.”

Ferguson may opt to rest 22-goal Robin van Persie, although Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, Javier Hernández and Nani could all do with minutes against the Cottagers. While veteran Rio Ferdinand is likely to be rested, with a match against Southampton in the Premier League on Wednesday evening.

Under-fire goalkeeper David de Gea may start despite Anders Lindegaard’s appearance in the third round replay against West Ham. On Friday Ferguson labelled critics of the young Spainiard “idiots,” with Alan Hansen and Gary Neville among a plethora of high-profile pundits to jump on a very public bandwagon.

Saturday’s will be a another test for the 22-year-old ‘keeper, who has grown in confidence this season, but – as evidenced against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend – can still struggle under the high ball. Fortunate, then, that Fulham’s is rarely a direct approach.

Yet, all eyes will be on Berbatov, who scored 56 goals in 149 appearances during four largely frustrating years in Manchester. Acquired for more than £30 million, Berbatov won many friends with a sublime first touch and moments of unrivalled skill, but drew ire for a seemingly complacent attitude and an inability to deliver on the biggest occasions.

Despite the perceived low return on United’s heavy investment Ferguson remains supportive of the 31-year-old Bulgarian, who moved south for around £2 million last summer.

“I don’t think Dimitar was a failure here,” said Ferguson. “Some people like to see players run through brick walls all the time. Dimitar is not that type of player, but he is very talented player and he had a decent goalscoring record here.

“The problem for him here was the way we wanted to play and the selections I had to make. When you have choices you hope to make the right one. Javier Hernández had a fantastic first season with us and as time went on he became a more regular player than Dimitar.”

Berabtov will start despite Fulham’s recent troubles in the Premier League, which ensure Wednesday’s fixture with West Ham remains a priority. Meanwhile, former Red Kieran Richardson misses the game against his old club with a calf injury, while winger Kerim Frei and midfielder Mahamadou Diarra did not travel.

The visitors predicament means that Ferguson’s side remains strong favourites for the tie. After all, United has beaten Fulham on 46 of the 78 occasions these two side have met, including a 3-2 victory in the Premier League last August. In eight previous FA Cup fixtures between the clubs, United has triumphed on seven occasions, including a 4-0 victory at Craven Cottage in 2009.

“We haven’t done as well in the FA Cup for a few years now,” admits Ferguson. “It’s a cup which has fantastic appeal given our record in it. We have benefit of the home draw. We’ll take that any time. It’s going to be a challenge for us but we would play anyone at the moment.”

That statement may be disingenuous given United’s tough draws over the past five years, but supporters will care little so long as United remains in the fifth round draw on Saturday evening.

Match Details
Manchester United v Fulham – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 5.30pm 26 January 2013

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Smalling, Büttner; Anderson, Cleverley; Nani, Rooney, Kagawa; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Ferdinand, Vidić, Evra, Scholes, Carrick, Powell, Valencia, Giggs, Welbeck, van Persie

Fulham (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Hangeland, Hughes, Briggs; Dejagah, Ruiz, Sidwell, Karagounis, Duff; Berbatov. Subs from: Etheridge, Senderos, Baird, Kacaniklic, Petric, Rodallega

Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistant Referees: David Bryan, Peter Bankes
Fourth Official: Michael Jones

United: WWDWWD
Fulham: LWDDWL

Head to Head
Last 10: United 7, Fulham 2, Draw 1
Overall: United 46, Fulham 14, Draw 18


Preview: United v West Ham

Ed January 15, 2013 Tags: , Matches 147 comments

The Magic of the Cup™ – reloaded. Uniteds of Manchester and visitors West Ham replay in the third round at Old Trafford on Wednesday ten days after a vibrant 2-2 draw in East London. The carrot: a home tie with Fulham on 26 January – and another step towards a Wembley date in May.

Still, with United having laboured for much of the previous match at Upton Park, Sam Allardyce’s men head north with some confidence. After all, the Reds continue to struggle with the defensive side of the game this season, while Sir Alex Ferguson’s side spent much of the second half of Sunday’s clash with Liverpool on the back foot.

The Premier League stands to one side on Wednesday, however, with Sir Alex’ men seeking a 12th FA Cup victory next May. Indeed, the passion with which the Scot celebrated United’s last-minute equaliser in the East End provides ample evidence for Ferguson’s desire to end a nine-year barren run in the Cup.

Good news, then, that Ferguson’s side is likely to be strong for the replay, with Wayne Rooney and Nani set to return for the 125th meeting between the two sides. Rooney hasn’t featured since United’s draw with Swansea City last month, while the Portuguese winger Nani has been out since October.

“Both will play, both are fit,” confirmed Ferguson on Tuesday, who is likely to deploy a many of his senior men at Old Trafford.

“Wayne coming back is good news. He’s been training for a week and looking good. As for Nani, he came back from his spell abroad  and is really looking very good. So I’m fine and will play a strong team.

“Of course, we’ve got a big squad but it’s also an important tie tomorrow for the club. We want to try and have a go at this FA Cup. We haven’t had a run for a long time. We’re at home and we have got to take advantage of that. If we get through, we have got another home tie so there’s a big incentive for the club to make sure we get through.”

Manchester United v West Ham United - FA Cup, Old Trafford - Wednesday 16 December 8.05pmMeanwhile, Ferguson is unlikely to risk either central defensive duo Nemanja Vidić or Jonny Evans – not with United set to face Tottenham Hotspur in London at the weekend in what could be a pivotal clash.

Nor will winger Ashley Young feature after the former Aston Villa winger picked up a knock during the weekend’s victory over Liverpool. Still, with Anderson, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernández all in the need of minutes United will not be short of firepower – on the pitch, or bench.

Yet, whatever his offensive options Ferguson will be looking for a far better defensive performance at Old Trafford, with his side having secured just six clean sheets all season.

Goalkeeper David de Gea and likely central defenders Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling will have to deal with the visitors’ crossing far better than at Upton Park when the Reds conceded twice from Joe Cole deliveries.

“We conceded two goals from headers in the first game and it’s a type of play that you come across in this league quite a bit,” said Spanish youngster de Gea.

“But we have players at the back who are perfectly capable of dealing with the threat of big powerful strikers who like the ball in the air. We have enough nous to cope with that. It’s something we work on and try to come up with solutions in training.”

Meanwhile, West Ham travel north without key defensive trio James Collins, George McCartney and Joey O’Brien, leaving the Hammers manager with just three fully fit senior defenders. Guy Demel, James Tomkins and Winston Reid will start, while Allardyce could also deploy youngsters Jordan Spence and Danny Potts.

Moreover, the Hammers boss may be tempted to rest key players, with his side facing a crucial relegation fixtures against Queens Park Rangers at the weekend.

Still, Allardyce may still be temped to deploy Joe Cole after the midfielder laid on a brace of goals in the first fixture. Cole also featured in West Ham’s last FA cup victory over United – the 1-0 win at Old Trafford more than a decade ago.

It is also a special occasion for defender Ferdinand, who relishes another tie with West Ham – one which recalls his time in the Londoners’ academy alongside Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Cole. Ferdinand is yet to win the FA Cup with any of his clubs.

“The era we had there will be part of West Ham’s history forever now, with so many players who went on to play for England and win league titles with other clubs,” said Ferdinand.

“It is unfortunate for West Ham those players did not stay there and their presence get built upon. That is all history now I suppose. But Joe Cole has gone there to rewrite a bit of his own history in the coming months. It would be good to see him do something positive, but not this week. We want to get through this round.”

And should United emerge victorious another alumni – this time from United – will return to Old Trafford: Dimitar Berbatov.

Match Details
Manchester United v West Ham United – FA Cup, Old Trafford – Wednesday 16 January 8.05pm

Possible teams
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Smalling, Büttner; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Nani; Rooney, Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Rafael, Evans, Evra, Cleverley, Kagawa, van Persie, Scholes, Fletcher, Welbeck, Powell, Macheda, Giggs, Hernández.

West Ham (4-5-1): Jaaskelainen; Demel, Tomkins, Reid, Potts; Noble, Diarra; J Cole, Nolan, Taylor; C Cole. Subs from: Henderson, Nolan, Jarvis, Maïga, Vaz Tê, Diamé, Maguire, Spence, Chamakh, Tombides, Driver, Paulista.

Referee: Philip Dowd
Assistant Referees: Simon Long & Gary Beswick
Fourth: Official Lee Probert

United: DWWWDW
West Ham: DLLWDL

Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, West Ham 1, Draw 1
Overall: United 57, West Ham 42, Draw 25


The goal

Ed January 6, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 38 comments

Having spent the best part of a decade chasing an 12th FA Cup victory, Manchester United’s stars certainly did a fine job of nearly trashing this year’s attempt at overcoming the first obstacle. From a goal ahead at West Ham United on Saturday, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side was saved at the last by a strike of such quality it deserved to win the tournament itself.

Little wonder the Scot led the eulogies post-match, both for van Persie’s late late strike, and the man who has transformed United’s season. Indeed, while United leads the Premier League by a healthy seven points there are apparently few at Old Trafford who do not desire another successful trip to Wembley.

Certainly, those supporters traveling to east London seek a return better than United suffered in 2005 and 2007 when Ferguson’s men lost in finals at Cardiff and Wembley.

Yet, for more than half an hour United laboured after falling behind to an unlikely brace of headers by James Collins – a pair of crosses supplied by the returning Joe Cole.

Ferguson’s side, suffering for six changes and more than one player deployed out of position, struggled not only for cohesiveness in attacking areas, but a defensive uncertainty that has become the pattern for the campaign. Twice United failed to cut out delivery from wide areas; twice Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidić lost their man.

Fortunate, then, that van Persie and Giggs should conjure up one of the finest strikes of the season to take these sides back to Old Trafford in 10 days time.

“When you’re 2-1 down with a couple of minutes left you just hope you get a break,” said Sir Alex Ferguson moments after Manchester United’s injury-time equaliser at Upton Park.

“But the manner of goal – the pass from Ryan Giggs and first touch from Robin van Persie and his finish – is absolutely world-class.”

Empty cliché it may be, but Ferguson’s blandishment to a goal made in Cardiff and finished, quite wonderfully, by Rotterdam’s finest, was every bit as “world-class” as it gets. From Giggs’ 50 yard pass, struck deliciously on the half-volley inch perfect into van Persie’s path, to the Dutchman’s sublime control, second touch and low finish past Jussi Jaaskelainen.

Yet, in six short months United fans have come to expect little else from van Persie, who now has 20 goals in 26 appearances this season. The comparison is inconsequential, of course, but by the same stage of the 2007/8 season, in which Cristiano Ronaldo went on to score 42, the Portuguese was a goal short of van Persie’s number.

It is a sign, says Ferguson, of a player who has “brought maturity to our front line.”

Captain Vidić is more effusive still, lionising the Dutchman as an example to all; a player far better than most United fans dared to believe before he arrived at Old Trafford this summer.

“His touch is magnificent and his finishing is top class,” said the Serbian.

“It is movement from the book, touch from the book, goal from the book. It is something they can show to kids, how to move and finish in the last third. He was magnificent for us, we just hope he is going to be in the same form in the end.”

The real surprise, however, is Giggs’ contribution, not just to van Persie’s goal, but over the extended festive period. A late Indian summer, perhaps, but a glorious one even if performances against Swansea City, Newcastle United, Wigan Athletic and now West Ham turn out to be the Welshman’s last hurrah in a United shirt.

But the real goal secured in United’s draw at Upton Park was not van Persie’s masterpiece per se, but a home draw with Fulham or Blackpool in round four – another shot at Wembley in the late spring.

“We want to stay in the competition and have a go at winning it,” Sir Alex told MUTV.

“We’ve had some terrible draws over the years and been knocked out early, we don’t enjoy that. For us to be losing 2-1 in that game was amazing given the chances we created and the football we played.

“But when you play West Ham you have got to defend your crosses from the set pieces because they are brilliant and the best team in the league at that, but we didn’t do it. When Ryan Giggs headed over the bar, Danny Welbeck hit another over, Tom Cleverley hit one more over and then Shinji Kagawa had one blocked near the line, I thought it wasn’t going to be our day.”

But it was, just about, and the sides will meet again in Manchester on 16 January, in what is now becoming a hugely crowded programme leading up to the Reds’ Champions League fixture with Real Madrid next month. Few in Ferguson’s camp are complaining though, not least the manager whose wild celebration at van Persie’s goal belies an enduring passion for the cup.

Sam Allardyce, who has not always enjoyed a positive relationship with West Ham supporters, declared himself “more than disappointed,” with the result. “We almost feel like we lost in that dressing room.”

That is the nature of conceding late, but the Hammers could hardly have done any more on the day.

After all, as Allardyce put it succinctly – “the finish was just unbelievable.” As the Centenary Stand erupted a little past the 90th minute, thousands of United supporters rose to concur.

Robin van Persie

Preview: West Ham v United

Ed January 5, 2013 Tags: , Matches 60 comments

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.”

West Ham United v Manchester United - FA Cup third round, Upton Park - Saturday 5 January 2013, 5.15pmWhatever 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 début 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.

Match Details
West Ham United v Manchester United – FA Cup third round, Upton Park – Saturday 5 January 2013, 5.15pm

Possible teams
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; Hernández. 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
United: WWDWWW

Head to Head
Last 10: West Ham 2, United 8, Draw 0
Overall: West Ham 42, United 57, Draw 24


Evra stands tall in the cauldron of Liverpool’s hate

Ed January 29, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 104 comments

The match did not conclude well for Patrice Evra, with the Manchester United captain allowing Dirk Kuyt to run inside and score Liverpool’s winning goal at the Kop End on Saturday. Indeed, by the end of a tortuous 90 minutes Evra looked mentally and physically shattered; beaten both by his opponents and fatigue. Yet, at no moment was the French defender defeated by the melting pot of vile – at times overtly racist – hatred directed by Liverpool’s supporters. Standing proud to the end, Evra’s side may have lost an FA Cup fourth round encounter, but the defender completed the game riding the highest of horses.

Catalysed by Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool’s hierarchy, Anfield’s regulars jeered the United number three’s every touch. This much was expect given the extent to which Liverpool has sought to, and largely succeeded in, regressing race relations at the club over the past three months. Few stood back from the organised cacophony; hate was not only directed at Evra, but deemed universally acceptable.

“There’s only one lying b*stard,” sang the Kop, echoing Liverpool’s ongoing defence of Luis Suárez – that Evra simply fabricated an allegation of racial abuse in October. This was a song delivered without irony, given that Dalglish, Suárez, Kuyt, and director of football Damien Commoli were each caught changing their stories to the independent Regulatory Commission that sat in judgement of the Liverpool striker.

Yet, it was no surprise that Liverpool manager Dalglish chose to categorise 90 minutes of abuse as nothing more than “friendly banter.” After all, the 60-year-old Scot has proven to be as unreconstructed as they come, having chosen to smear Evra, as Dalglish’s own evidence to the Commission demonstrated, right from the very start of the affair back in October.

While the atmosphere was deeply unpleasant, far worse was to come from Liverpool’s once proud supporters than mere noise. Shortly before half-time one supporter was caught on camera aiming a ‘monkey gesture‘ towards Evra. It was an image posted on this site, and to Twitter. Within minutes the picture had spread throughout the football community.

Merseyside Police confirmed on Saturday evening that a 59-year-old man from North Wales was arrested following an ‘alleged’ incident at the match. The supporter was taken to a local station for questioning.

Yet, there has been not a word from Liverpool about the incident. So quick to launch a smear campaign against Evra, the Football Association or any other party deemed to have wronged the club; so reticent to decry racism in genuine terms.

One wonders whether the club will ever come to understand the very real damaged caused by its reaction to Suárez’ sanction. Liverpool, and Dalglish in particular, not only failed to apologise for the striker’s racist abuse, but the club has now sponsored a new wave of race hate among its fan-base. The latest incident is the third this season, beginning with Suárez, and including the disgraceful abuse of Oldham Athletic defender Tom Adeyemi earlier this month.

In keeping with the pattern, Dalglish praised Liverpool’s supporters on Saturday.

“The fans are entitled to support their team, absolutely no problem,” claimed Dalglish on Saturday.

“I don’t think there was anything there that was untoward. I think both sets of fans were a magnificent advert for their clubs. Both clubs can be very proud of the fans they have here. There was a good bit of banter between both fans, which is brilliant because you don’t want to take that away.”

But the genuine concern is that Evra’s contemporaries will now be less inclined to report incidents of racial abuse given the furious reaction extracted from Liverpool supporters by their club. It is a concern touched on by a media community now growing restless at Liverpool’s approach to race relations.

“I found it horrible, I found it a very difficult day to report on,” Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Northcroft told Sunday Supplement.

“I live in Liverpool and my partner is black and she’s found this very uncomfortable. We know black friends who are Liverpool fans and they’ve also found it very uncomfortable. What we had yesterday was a black player being booed and barracked and targeted by the Liverpool fans and called a liar. And for what? His crime was to have complained about racial abuse the last time he was at the stadium. That particular case was upheld by an FA commission, but he’s being targeted and treated as a villain.”

Meanwhile, Evra, although clearly drained by the fixture’s intensity, reacted not once to the bile from the stands. Indeed, the 30-year-old has behaved with a quiet dignity throughout, keeping largely silent in the face of supporter-driven hatred, and media scrutiny.

But Evra’s silence has only been in the public sphere, behind the scenes the Frenchman proved not only to be a forthright and credible witness, but a genuine leader. Yet, with the defender so heavily abused just a day after QPR player Anton Ferdinand was sent a bullet in the post – presumably by a disgruntled Chelsea supporter – questions will be asked about football’s ability to deal with racism in the future.

“Are we saying if you make a complaint about racial abuse you’re going to get a bullet sent through the post to you or you’re going to get called a liar by 40,000 fans?” added the Mirror’s Oliver Holt.

“We’re trying to empower black players not to put up with this any more, and yet we are in danger – because of the reaction that has happened and the vilification of players who have done nothing except complain about being racially abused – of pushing things back to a conspiracy of silence.”

In this Liverpool is highly culpable, as is the FA for allowing one of the country’s most venerated club’s to become a force not for unity, but division.

“Football at times can be like pantomime, you can boo the referee if you feel he makes a bad decision and you boo a player if you feel he has feigned an injury or made a bad tackle and you can live with that,” PFA chairman Gordon Taylor told talkSPORT.

“But when you are booing a player because he has made a complaint that was upheld by an independent panel, you worry that it is going to put off anybody complaining again because of the backlash and furore we have seen.

“That’s just what we don’t want because there is no point in having a campaign to eliminate such a highly sensitive issue as racism if it is going to get drowned out by the backlash.”

In that there is a lesson. Suárez’ punishment may have sent the proverbial message that racist abuse on the pitch is not acceptable. Perhaps it is now time for the Uruguayan’s club to face a similar judgement.

Fergie urges calm for Liverpool cup clash

Ed January 28, 2012 Tags: , Matches 5 comments

Amid the tension and media interest generated by Luis Suárez’ racial abuse of Patrice Evra in October fans could be forgiven for losing sight of the sideshow this weekend: the fight for a place in the last 16 of the world’s oldest cup competition. Yet, the simmering hatred ingrained into Manchester United’s rivalry with Liverpool has an added dimension this weekend, with the visitors’ first outing at Anfield since the Uruguayan’s transgression in October. It makes for a fascinating FA Cup fourth round tie; one in which the subplot still threatens to grab all the headlines.

Sir Alex Ferguson may be unwilling to talk about Evra – in public at least – but there is little doubt that Liverpool’s actions in both vociferously defending Suárez, and fingering Evra for the Football Association’s eight match ban of the striker, has irked the Scot. Ferguson’s aggressive dismissal of media questioning on Friday is all the tell any supporters need.

It is not as though one has to look far beneath the surface to uncover the deep emotions that this tie has always uncovered. Mutual resentment did not require Suárez’ actions to bubble up from beneath the surface, and spill over the edge from rivalry to hate. Yet, October has certainly catalyzed the process; acting as a reference point for one of football’s most divisive encounters.

Will hate spill over into something more on Saturday? Certainly with tensions running so high both Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish were circumspect in their comments on Friday. Despite this the damage has surely already been done by the Anfield club: Evra, United’s captain, can expect to ride the gauntlet of abuse on Saturday. None of it is likely to phase Senegalese-born Evra.

Meanwhile, United supporters, just over 5,000 of them, were urged to be “loud and witty” but no more by Ferguson. Travelling fans will need every ounce of restraint in an encounter that needs no kindling.

Supporters need only recall the last occasion United last visited Anfield in the FA Cup when Alan Smith snapped is right leg in two places, and home fans saw fit to charge the striker’s ambulance. It was no isolated incident in a long history of dark moments between these two clubs.

Liverpool versus Manchester United, FA Cup fourth round, Anfield, Saturday 28 January 2012, 12.45pm.There is a football match, of course, and if Ferguson’s men are to secure the FA Cup for the first time since 2004 they will have to both overcome the odds and history. Indeed, with up to 11 players injured, Ferguson’s men must win the hard way if United is to beat Liverpool at Anfield for the first time in almost five years.

“It’s a massive game for both clubs. There’s a tremendous profile around it,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.

“As Steven Gerrard said yesterday, there is a responsibility on the players to behave properly and also both sets of fans. We want to make sure we are talking about the game, nothing else. It is something you want to look forward to. That is what I intend to do.

“I always think home draws make you favourite. In my time there haven’t been many cup ties between the clubs. It’s one to look forward to and I think the players will follow that.”

Ferguson would not be drawn on Evra’s role, although there was never any question of the French defender being left out of United’s side on Saturday. Indeed, Ferguson has steadfastly refused to discuss the affair, even in the wake of the FA Regulatory Commission’s damning indictment of Suárez.

Instead, Ferguson was keen to talk up supporters’ responsibility on Saturday, both for maintaining order in a testing atmosphere and for driving United towards victory.

“Our fans were terrific there this season. The issue of clubs reducing the number of tickets for our supporters has been going on for quite a while now. It has become a convenient way of selling their hospitality. But the stewards have a difficult enough job as it is. We should be helping.”

Whatever the distractions United must win a tie without a team of absentees. Long-term injury victims Tom Cleverley, Nemanja Vidić, Darren Fletcher and Michael Owen are joined on the sidelines by a plethora of senior pros. Ashley Young, although back in training, is not ready to take part, while Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand will not be risked.

Meanwhile, United waits on news of winger Nani’s injury, with the club fearing a broken metatarsal bone. Wayne Rooney, who hobbled away from United’s victory at Arsenal last week, may not be risked, and Michael Carrick faces a late test.

Despite the absentees Ferguson’s men head into the tie with one of England’s most in-form forwards in Danny Welbeck. The once gangly kid has grown into a Premier League striker of the highest class over the past 18 months. United will surely need the Longsight-born forward to be at his dynamic best on Saturday.

No wonder Ferguson singled out the 21-year-old England international for praise.

“We were always aware of Danny Welbeck’s ability as a kid,” added Sir Alex on Friday.

“It was just a matter of waiting for Danny to develop into a man and we’re seeing the signs now. He has a great physique but I think there’s still more to come. I don’t think he’s finished growing yet. Our stats show there’s still a bit to do before he becomes a complete adult in a physical sense. He has a good attitude but then he should – he’s a young player with an opportunity at Manchester United.”

Should Rooney not make the tie as seems increasingly likely – the Scouser has not trained all week – Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández will compete for a place along side the United youngster. With so many injuries Ferguson’s back-four picks itself, although the Scot must choose between Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Paul Scholes in central midfield.

Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Dalglish will be without Suárez, with the Uruguayan serving the sixth of an eight match ban. Jay Spearing may return to the squad, although Dalglish is unlikely to make many changes from the 11 that knocked Manchester City out of the Carling Cup on Wednesday.

Yet, despite Liverpool’s mixed recent form the Anfield side has not yet lost at home this season. Dalglish’s side has recorded five wins and eight draws at Anfield, although the side is struggling to keep in touch with the top four. Yet, there can be no room for any doubt that Liverpool’s players will up the mediocre level of commitment displayed, for example, in the recent defeat to Bolton Wanderers. Hostility from the stands will surely be met by passion on the pitch.

It is incumbent on Ferguson’s men to quieten both.

Match Facts
Liverpool versus Manchester United, FA Cup fourth round, Anfield, Saturday 28 January 2012, 12.45pm.

Potential Line-ups
Liverpool (4-5-1): Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Henderson, Spearing, Adam, Gerrard, Downing; Carroll. Subs from: Doni, Bellamy, Kuyt, Kelly, Coates, Rodríguez, Carragher, Aurélio, Shelvey, Flanagan.

United (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Park; Hernandez, Welbeck. Subs from: De Gea, Fryers, Cole, Fabio, Lingard, Keane, Scholes, Berbatov.

Liverpool: LWWDLD
United: WLLWWW

Referee: Mark Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey & Stuart Burt
Fourth Official: Howard Webb