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.”
Meanwhile, 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.”
Manchester United v Chelsea – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 4.30pm, 10 March 2013.
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
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey, Darren Cann
Fourth Official: Phil Dowd
Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Chelsea 3, Draw 1
Overall: United 72, Chelsea 45, Draw 48