Sir Alex Ferguson has warned his Manchester United side against turning a blip into a slump after defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool in the past 10 days. But the 69-year-old manager was in positive mood on finally breaking a week-long silence ahead of United’s FA Cup fifth round tie with Arsenal at Old Trafford.
However, Ferguson could be without 10 first team players for the Londoners’ visit, including winger Nani who suffered a serious gash to his left leg following Jamie Carragher’s high tackle last weekend. United will once against be without key defender Rio Ferdinand, whose calf injury now appears more serious than first thought. Meanwhile Jonny Evans, midfielders Park Ji-Sung, Anderson, and Antonio Valencia will all miss out.
Despite recent setbacks and the lengthy injury list, which may mean a recall for forgotten Frenchman Gabriel Obertan, Ferguson says he is looking forward to the challenge of competing on three fronts as the season draws to a close.
“We’ve got to look forward now. There are big opportunities at this club and we have a lot of challenges ahead of us for the rest of the season,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“We have the experience to recover. It’s happened a few times here and, at any club, you never go through a season where everything is rosy. When you get the bad moments you have to recover from it.
“It’s another day in the history of Manchester United and you take that history into games. The ability to do that over the years is a tremendous credit to every team we’ve had here.”
Indeed, the match takes on increasing significance for both teams after the events of the past fortnight, in which United’s defeats have been matched by the Londoners. Just 13 days ago Arsène Wenger’s outfit was challenging on four fronts. Defeat on Saturday evening will leave Arsenal chasing United’s tails in the Premier League as the club’s sole focus.
Although Ferguson said he will play his strongest side – words echoed by his opposite number – the Scot must also take Tuesday’s tie with Marseille into account. Still, with United having failed to win the FA Cup in nearly seven years, few of his squad have cup final experience.
“It’s interesting, for example, to see that Rio has never won an FA Cup medal, which I’m surprised about,” adds Ferguson.
“So it is an opportunity for these players. The incentive for both teams is a semi-final and you always like to take your team to Wembley. I don’t entirely agree with semi-finals being played at Wembley. Nonetheless, it is Wembley, so it’s a smashing incentive for everyone.”
However, the Scot is likely to rotate his resources mindful of the Champions League tie in three days. Veterans Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar may sit out the cup tie, with Darron Gibson, Béné and Obertan all in contention for a place against the Gunners.
Ferguson will also choose between strikers Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández; the Scot normally deploys a lone forward against Arsenal with three supporting from central midfield. It suggests that Rooney will be deployed in a wide role, with Ferguson short of wingers for the match. Nani will miss at least a fortnight, while Antonio Valencia is not yet ready for first team action despite the Ecuadorian’s return to training.
“Obviously it was a disgraceful tackle, we know that, but you just move on,” added Ferguson of Carragher’s studs-up challenge.
“There’s nothing we can do about it now. The wound was too wide. We sent him to the hospital to see what they could do and our own doctor and the surgeon there managed to get it stitched up, which was fantastic, the best news we could have. The alternative would have been to wait and just let it heal but the problem with that is infection.”
Meanwhile, Wenger must do without inspirational captain Cesc Fabregas, after the Spaniard came off in the Gunners’ defeat to Barcelona last week. Wojciech Szczesny, Theo Walcott, Alex Song and Thomas Vermaelen will also miss the trip north.
It’s a match in which United is looking for a seventh consecutive unbeaten league and cup match against the Londoners, including a fourth consecutive victory. United beat Arsenal 4-0 on the last FA Cup meeting between the sides three years ago. And despite two defeats on the road against Chelsea and Liverpool in the past 10 days, United has won the last eight at Old Trafford.
More important still – Saturday’s victor will enter the final phase of the season with a distinct psychological advantage over its direct Premier League title rivals.
Arsenal – 433 – Almunia; Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy; Diaby, Wilshere, Denilson; Nasri, Van Persie, Arshavin. Subs from: Bendtner, Rosicky, Squillaci, Chamakh, Eboue, Ramsey, Gibbs, Miquel, Henderson.
United – 433 – Lindegaard; O’Shea, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Gibson, Fletcher, Carrick; Rooney, Berbatov, Obertan. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Gibson, Bébé, , Fabio da Silva, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King, Carrick, Rafael da Silva, Owen, Brown, Scholes, van der Sar, Giggs.
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistant referees: Adam Watts and John Flynn
Fourth official: Mark Halsey
United – WWDWLL
Arsenal – WDWLDL