The Carling Cup has become Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred route to blooding younger players. Despite opposition when Ferguson first employed the tactic nearly 15 years ago, it is a pattern now followed by most of the leading Premier League clubs. Understandable too – as the club’s lowest priority competition there is value in offering younger players vital competitive action they are unlikely to see in the Premier or Champions Leagues.
Why then did Wednesday’s starting team to face Wolverhampton Wanderers contain just four such players? Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Fabio da Silva and Darron Gibson, joined another seven senior players to face the newly promoted midlands club. Ritchie de Laet, who came on to replace Macheda following Fabio’s red card, and then the Norwegian Joshua King made it on the pitch as substitutes.
But this was one of the stronger – most experienced – Carling Cup sides that Ferguson has fielded this early in the competition. King aside, all the younger players had started a Premier League match before. Indeed, Macheda, Welbeck and Gibson have been in the first team squad for some time; the Irishman mentioned in dispatches by Ferguson last week.
Ever the realist Ferguson chose to give minutes to Gary Neville, Wes Brown, Michael Owen and Michael Carrick. None has seen significant competitive action this season. But each may now be wondering what demotion to the Carling Cup side means. Nani, who had a difficult night, had already started six games this season.
But the decision to include established players seeking match time also meant that some of the better reserve players, not out on loan, missed out. Febian Brandy, Zoran Tosic, Corey Evans, Magnus Eikrem and Robert Brady will be disappointed. The Serbian left-winger Tosic should probably pack his bags now if he can’t make the Carling Cup third round side.
On the pitch Fabio’s red card not only cut short his own game but Macheda’s too. The Italian sacrificed for the greater cause, with de Laet benefiting from an hour’s action. Macheda will have been hugely disappointed after failing to make the bench for any of United’s Premier League matches this season.
But it was Welbeck who was the star attraction. The striker took his goal superbly – underlining the technical qualities that prompted Sir Alex to nominate the Manchester-born player for England’s World Cup 2010 squad. He was also a tireless worker after being consigned to the left-wing for the last hour of the night.
“It was great playing alongside Michael Owen. It’s Michael Owen at the end of the day,” said Welbeck after the match.
“You can always learn from his movement, it’s unbelievable. I just knew he was round the corner and I knew where he was going next.
“We went one up front after the sending-off, so I was kind of playing as a left winger. I just had to get used to it but then the goal came, so I was pleased with that.”
The striker’s composure on the pitch matched his level-headedness off it. A character trait that will impress his manager – and the fans.
“I didn’t know Sir Alex had said that about England but it doesn’t drive me on,” he said.
“It’s a great plus to hear it but I’m really just concentrating on Manchester United at the moment. I suppose I’m just like any other normal Manc boy, really. To be given the chance to play for United is a dream.”
As we all know United > England.