Manchester City’s players departed for Saturday afternoon’s FA Cup semi-final from, where else, but Stockport as around 90,000 Reds and Blues make their way down the M6 for the 159th derby. It could be the first of three trips to Wembley for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team over the next six weeks, with both the cup final and Champions League final also held in north London.
It is this experience – of the big occasion at Wembley – that is key to winning Saturday’s match, according to Ferguson, with the Manchester United manager predicting semi-final nerves could decide the match in the Reds’ favour. In a week when Nemanja Vidic labelled City as “obsessed” with winning a trophy, the United manager expects his players’ mental toughness to come to the fore.
“I don’t know the mental side of any of their players, because I’ve not worked with any of them apart from Tevez of course,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“Only Roberto [Mancini] will know that, he’ll know his players much better. But it’s very difficult to block out the occasion, simply because sometimes it overrides everything else. And Wembley is an occasion stadium. When you go there it’s for an important reason, and that can affect some players. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. It’s a fact.
“I know my own players and they’ve obviously been used to big game situations many times, so we don’t have to conquer that. I have a group of players who are confident going into games, their attitude is great and I couldn’t ask for a better situation than I’ve got.
“The players are in form and the squad is getting stronger with players back [from injury]. It wouldn’t matter which game we were going into, I’d believe in these players. At the moment they’ve got a great momentum about them, which is a fantastic thing to have at this stage of the season.”
However, the United manager has a crucial decision to make on his side’s line-up, with two intense games against Chelsea in the past 10 days and a busy programme coming up. Ferguson is fortunate that Wayne Rooney aside – the striker is suspended for swearing during the Reds’ victory over West Ham United a fortnight ago – he can call upon an almost fully fit squad.
The 69-year-old Scot will recall Dimitar Berbatov to an attacking United line-up and Ferguson says he has some sympathy for the Bulgarian, the Premier League’s top goalscorer, who has spent much of the past two months on the bench. Javier Hernández’ form has seemingly pushed Berbatov to the periphery, not for the first time in the 30-year-old’s time at Old Trafford.
“It’s unfortunate for Dimitar because he’s a fantastic player, but the reasons are obvious,” the United manager said.
“The emergence of Hernández in the last couple of months has been startling. He’s improving all the time, he’s getting stronger and it’s very difficult to leave a player out when he hits that kind of form.
“He’s fantastic, with a natural instinct to move about the box. There have been a few top strikers who’ve had that quality. Ole [Gunnar Solksjaer] was one, always being in space in the box, and having a natural instinct to do that. [Gary] Lineker probably never scored a good goal in his life. It would always come off his chest, his shin or he would get a rebound off the goalkeeper. But he was always in really good areas, and the boy Hernández is the same.”
Meanwhile, Rafael da Silva, Antonio Valencia and Paul Scholes are also in contention for a recall to the United side, with 37-year-old Ryan Giggs due a well-earned rest. Darren Fletcher is still absence with a mystery virus, although the Scot began training this week, while Owen Hargreaves will miss the rest of the campaign with a shoulder injury.
City supporters, seeking a first trophy in 35 years, will travel south in equal numbers. It is, after all, the club’s first visit to Wembley since winning the Championship play-off in 1999 – the year United secured the treble.
However, City manager Roberto Mancini must do without Carlos Tevez, the former United forward who is out with a hamstring strain. The Italian is likely to deploy £27 million striker Edin Džeko, supported by Yaya Touré, the Ivorian midfielder who has been used in a more attacking role at City. Whether Mancini liberates his side from the stultifying tactics deployed in the last two Manchester derbies is another matter altogether.
Yet, while City’s obsession with United defines the club, Red legend Scholes says the Blue side of Manchester is a rival in geographical terms only. He is surely right – and until City manages to win a first trophy in 35 years few Reds will disagree. Indeed, with Abu Dhabi’s money now fueling the Eastland’s transfer market spending spree, any silverware claimed in the coming years is rendered meaningless in the face of the club’s financial doping.
“When they are fourth or fifth [in the league], I don’t think they can be classed as a main rival,” said Scholes.
“Our main rivals are obviously Arsenal and Chelsea. I think City are just a rival because of where they are [geographically] and Liverpool the same.
“It’s an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, it’s massive, there will be 30,000 fans from each side… it’s the biggest game we’ve had against City for a while. Whoever loses will be devastated. I remember the 5-1 defeat in 1989 and Andy Hinchcliffe scoring that goal. It’s painful. I can also remember going to Maine Road and losing 3-1 [in 2002] and it’s horrible. You hate losing against anybody, but City? It’s bad.”
Thousands of Reds at Wembley today will agree; defeat a result nobody is countenancing.
Scholes scored a last-minute winner at Eastlands last season to the joy of Reds everywhere – it’s a goal the ginger maestro describes as “one of the best things I have ever done”. Another Fergie-time winner for the Reds on Saturday will send one half of Manchester home happy; the other, presumably back to Stockport, will remain forever in United’s shadow.
City – 433 – Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov; de Jong, Barry, Touré; Silva, Dzeko, Ballotelli. Subs from: Boyata, Milner, Johnson, Taylor, Zabaleta, McGivern, Wright-Phillips, Vieira.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Park; Berbatov, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Gibson, Nani, Anderson, Ferdinand, Giggs.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral)
Assistant referees: Mike Mullarkey and Peter Kirkup
Fourth official: Chris Foy
United – WWWWWW
City – LWWLWL