Sir Alex Ferguson will offer Manchester United’s youngsters another opportunity to impress as his side takes on Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on Wednesday. Kids Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and Ezekiel Fryers could all feature against the mid-table Championship club, as the Reds seek a place in the Carling Cup semi-final for the sixth time in 10 years.
Indeed, Ferguson, who has won the tournament four times during his reign at Old Trafford, is likely to name a side with 11 changes from that which drew with Newcastle United at the weekend. But the question on many fans lips is whether Morrison, Pogba et al will start against Palace at Old Trafford, with Ferguson having used his younger players sparingly in previous rounds of the tournament this season.
Yet with injuries biting into the Scot’s squad, and Palace set to field several changes, there is unlikely to be a better opportunity for United’s youngsters to star in the first team this season.
“There will be complete change, just the same as we had at Leeds and Aldershot,” said Ferguson.
“Ravel Morrison was in the squad for Wednesday’s game [against Benfica]. He’s a very, very talented boy, of course, and he’ll possibly be on the bench, at least, in midweek. But I’ve got other players needing a game like Mame Biram Diouf and Federico Macheda.
“All the younger players [will come in] – Zeki Fryers, the two Da Silvas [Rafael and Fabio] are possibles. Chris Smalling has come back and I may be able to play him on Wednesday. He’s still young and it’ll be a young squad against Palace. The only area where I’ve got problems is centre midfield. It’s possible I could play Pogba in there but we’ll wait and see. I’ve got enough players to choose from, that’s for sure.”
The prospect of Morrison and Pogba, in particular, featuring against Palace is an attractive one. However, neither started ties against Aldershot Town or Leeds United, with Ferguson preferring to offer game time to fringe squad players. The pair may well start on the bench, even counting injuries to Tom Cleverley and Anderson, with Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick certain to be rested. In to the side is likely to come Darron Gibson and Park Ji-Sung.
Elsewhere, Rafael da Silva could make a long-awaited return to first team action after recovering from a shoulder injury, while Chris Smalling should start his first game in a month. Striker Federico Macheda will make his first start of the season.
“I think the League Cup has turned into quite a good tournament,” added Ferguson.
“Clubs like United are able to introduce young players and ones who have not been playing regularly in the first team and it’s been good to us over the years. We’ve won two finals at Wembley with young players, which is good going, and I think it’s become an important tournament for us in terms of getting the youngsters an introduction into winning.
“The reserves’ league is more of an extended youth league but we rectify that by putting players on loan. We’ve got quite a lot of players on loan this year, as we have every year, most of the 19 and 20-year-olds. The nucleus of the youth team last year have all had first-team experience this season. They’ve all been involved in the League Cup and travelled to European games with us. It’s valuable experience for the younger ones.”
Meanwhile, 10th placed Palace heads north with one eye on a key Championship game with Derby County on Friday night. Star winger Darren Ambrose is expected to be in the starting line-up, but Jonathan Williams is absent following a broken leg. Lee Hills and Alex Marrow are also out with injury.
Injuries and changes are unlikely to aid a Palace side that has managed just one win in the last five matches. Moreover, Dougie Freedman’s outfit has not scored a goal for 485 minutes. If that record isn’t foreboding enough for the south London team, then Palace’s record against United will bring little comfort – the club has not won at Old Trafford since 1989.
“I’ve told my players to go there and come away better players,” said 37-year-old Palace manager Freedman.
“This is an experience that you have got to soak up, you’ve got to enjoy it, you’ve got to work hard and be proud of your performance and what will be will be. That is exactly what I’ve told my players and that is exactly what I am going to do myself. You’ve got to make yourself and your family proud of your performance if you’re representing this club and that is what I ask of my players – to make themselves and their families proud of them playing there and coming away from it as a better player.”
The fixture recalls memories of the epic FA Cup final ties with Palace in 1990, not least the replay victory that ended Ferguson’s search for a first trophy with the club. The two matches were dramatic and, at times, stomach churning to watch for United supporters. Indeed, with United coming very close to blowing the first game, the past 20 years could have been very different if Palace had won the tie and Ferguson not secured silverware. Without victory, the pressure to dismiss the Scot that summer may have been unbearable.
No such pressure exists on Wednesday of course. Victory over Palace will simply increase United’s fixture calendar by two games in February – possibly against Manchester City or Liverpool, who won quarter final ties at Arsenal and Chelsea on Tuesday.
Manchester United versus Crystal Palace, Carling Cup, Old Trafford, Wednesday 30 November 2011, 7.45pm
United (4-4-1-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Fryers, Smalling, Fabio; Valencia, Gibson, Park, Diouf; Berbatov, Macheda. Subs from: De Gea, Amos, Jones, Fletcher, Carrick, Young, Hernandez, Evans, Keane, Rooney, Pogba, Morrison.
Palace (4-5-1): Price; Clyne, McCarthy, Ramage, Parr; O’Keefe, Wright
Zaha, Ambrose, Scannell; Easter. Subs from: Speroni, Moxey, Gardner, Jedinak, Zaha, Murray, C Martin, Garvan, Price, Dikgacoi, Iversen, Marrow, Cadogan, , Pedroza, Sekajja.
Referee: Chris Foy (St. Helens)
Assistants: Richard West, Bobby Pollock
Fourth Official: Neil Swarbrick