Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is backing his strikeforce to fire the Reds into the Champions League semi-final. While the 69-year-old Scot is seemingly unlikely to deploy Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández at Stamford Bridge tonight, the trio has now scored 50 goals between them this season. It’s the kind of firepower that took United to the treble in 1999, with Ferguson this week evoking memories of the club’s glory 12 seasons ago.
Ferguson, who says his forwards has covered up for deficiencies in United’s defence recently, is also boosted by the return of key defenders Rafael da Silva and Rio Ferdinand. The Brazilian youngster is certain to start against Chelsea, while Ferdinand, who has trained all week, is a high-profile risk in a key game.
“Johnny Evans is available for tomorrow, Ferdinand has been training for over a week, whether he is ready, I’m not sure,” Ferguson told the media on Tuesday.
“Rafael is available and O’Shea and Brown are back training.”
The good news in defence is a welcome bonus after the United manager was forced to dig deep into his resources in the past month. But it is United’s forward play that has Ferguson purring ahead of a potentially season-defining fixture in London.
“What has kept us going despite the injuries we have had in defensive positions is that there has been a good goal threat from us. We have forwards who can win matches,” added the United manager.
“Scoring is what strikers are all about. When you are scoring goals, the confidence is great, you never think you are going to stop.”
“I am happy with our forward play. Chicharito’s development is a great bonus. Wayne Rooney’s form is coming back. They have been marvellous the two of them together.
“I said at the start of the season if we get two players who can score over 20 goals we are in with a great chance of winning something. Wayne is now on 12. Chicharito is on 17 and Berbatov is on 21. That is a good return and we have quite a few games left. I think my prediction is going to be accurate.”
While Rooney faces a domestic ban for the “foul and abusive language” used in United’s 4-2 win at the Boleyn Ground on Saturday, no such distractions follow the 25-year-old into Europe. Indeed, Rooney scored a fine goal at Stamford Bridge in the recent Premier League meeting between the two sides and now has nine since the turn of the year.
Ferguson must choose whether to deploy the former Evertonian in the lone front-running role favoured by the Scot in Europe, or take advantage of Chelsea’s lack of defensive pace by bringing Hernández into the side. After all, the Mexican began United’s match against Chelsea in London earlier this season.
In midfield Ferguson could welcome back Paul Scholes after the 36-year-old’s recent suspension. The flame-haired midfielder is likely to be partnered by Michael Carrick, although Ryan Giggs is also in contention for a place in the side.
And Ferguson was unusually ebullient this week, prompting talk of another treble in an interview with Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. It’s the kind of talk that 69-year-old normally resists.
“It is 14 games in two months if everything goes our way and, at United, we are used to this kind of thing, which is to our advantage,” he told the paper.
“In the past I have said many times that to win just one trophy would be great. But we have to take the chance of winning all three now. We can repeat the treble of 1999.”
To repeat that feat United will have to improve on an awful recent record against the Londoners. Chelsea completed a double over Ferguson’s side in the Premier League last year and secured a controversial 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. Indeed, United has not won at the Londoners’ home ground for eight years, while manager Carlo Ancelotti can also boast a strong record against United in Europe.
Yet, despite the rivalry Ferguson had kind words for both Ancelotti and new £50 million striker Fernando Torres ahead of tonight’s tie. Ancelotti is widely expected to step down from his role at Chelsea when the season ends in May.
“It’s incredible for Carlo, he won the Double last season. How can Chelsea think of changing such a coach?
“Carlo is a fantastic guy, a really nice person. There is nothing really between our two teams. Both possess excellent footballers, both have international experience, experienced good coaches. Really, I don’t know where all the criticism comes from.
“Of course he will score again,” Ferguson added of Torres, who has not scored since the move south in January.
“When Chelsea signed him, everyone was saying: ‘What a great signing.’ Now, because he has not scored, he is a bad signing. Can people be more ridiculous? Maybe he is just settling in from the Liverpool system to the Chelsea system.”
Ferguson will hope that Torres does not add to the three goals in eight games the Spaniard scored against United during the his time at Liverpool.
Chelsea – 442 – Cech; Bosingwa, Terry, Ivanovic, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard, Zhirkov; Drogba, Torres. Subs from: Turnbull, Benayoun, Mikel, Malouda, Ferreira, Kalou, Anelka.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Scholes, Berbatov, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Smalling, Gibson, Tunnicliffe, Morrison, NaniKing, Anderson.
Referee: Alberto Undiano Ibanez (ESP)
Assistant referees: Fermin Martinez Ibanez & Yuan Carlos Yuste Jimenez
Fourth official: David Fernandez Borbalan
Chelsea – WWWDWD
United – WDWWWW