Manchester United’s attempt to win a third straight Carling Cup begins on Wednesday night with a visit to the Google-unfriendly Scunthorpe United. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson will take a shadow squad to Glanford Park that could include Bebé and Gabriel Obertan in the party, alongside fringe, youth and star names returning to peak fitness.
Managed by 39-year-old caretaker Ian Baraclough in the wake of Nigel Adkins’ departure to Southampton, Championship side Scunthorpe remained in the division by just five points last season. It’s a notable achievement though, especially for a club in just its third campaign ever fought in the second tier of English football. Perhaps more so because with average gates a little over 5,000 The Iron boasts the smallest budget in the division.
Following a fight to save the club from relegation to League Two six years ago, Scunthorpe has enjoyed three promotions and a Johnstones Paint Trophy final appearance in 2009. But despite residing at the relatively new, although admittedly very basic Glandford Park, Scunthorpe remains favourites for the drop into League One this season.
Indeed, there is ample contrast to be made on United’s visit, albeit with Ferguson’s shadow squad in town, with the Reds likely to field up to seven full internationals in the starting team.
Of the senior players in United’s 18-man squad for the trip to Lincolnshire, Michael Owen will definitely play, while it will be no surprise if Park Ji-Sung, Anderson, Javer Hernández, Tomasz Kuszczak, Darron Gibson, Gary Neville, Chris Smalling, Obertan and the da Silva brothers also start.
Ferguson could use Rio Ferdinand at some point. The defender sat out United’s 3-2 victory over Liverpool with a stomach bug but is short of first team minutes this season.
“We played a lot of young players last season and they all acquitted themselves well,” Sir Alex told ManUtd.com.
“We’ll do the same tomorrow at Scunthorpe. A lot of my young players will play. Bebé is training very well. He’ll be involved tomorrow night. Federico Macheda will as well.
“The Carling Cup’s served us well over the last few seasons – it allows me to keep everybody happy in terms of giving people games and we’ve reached the last two finals, which has its obvious advantages. Playing at Wembley and competing for medals on the big stage is terrific for players’ development.”
Perhaps most exciting though is the prospect of Bebé in a first team shirt. The £7.4 million Portuguese winger has played just one reserve game and a brace of Under-21 fixtures since a surprise transfer from Vitória de Guimarães in August. But with a month of conditioning work behind him, many believe Bebé is ready for his début, after being left out of the reserves’ 5-1 victory over Bury last night.
“I am going to be a brilliant player for Manchester United,” the 20-year-old told the Manchester Evening News last week.
“After a couple more games I will be better. I have to be fitter because it’s a different type of football in England.
“I don’t know when I will be ready for the first team. I need to work hard and a lot depends on the boss whether he calls me into the team or not.
“Sir Alex has told me he is very happy with me and he wants me to train more and get into the first team.”
Owen, meanwhile, will start for the first time this season, having been force to wait in line behind Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and new signing Hernández this season. It has been a period of frustration for the former Liverpool striker, who papers have linked with a January move to Gerard Houlier’s Aston Villa.
“I understand Michael’s frustration – he’s exactly right – but it’s because Berbatov started the season so well, then the international break came. It’s difficult,” Ferguson adds.
“We’ve got this Carling Cup game and he’ll start that. He’ll get enough football.”
Owen has made just 12 starts and 23 substitute appearances for United, scoring nine goals since the free transfer move from Newcastle United last summer. The 31-year-old former England striker scored in last season’s final against Aston Villa as United took the trophy for the second season in a row. Indeed, outside of the Carling Cup Owen has made just six starts for the club.
Once again the Carling Cup will offer a refuge for United’s younger and fringe players this season, with few having been used by manager Ferguson, despite the Scot’s professed faith in youth.
Indeed, with striker Federico Macheda unlikely to start for United at Owen’s expense the Italian is facing up to a third staight season of reserve team football and occasional substitute appearances.
Meanwhile, Iron manager Baraclough has no new injury worries ahead of United’s visit. Centre-back Rob Jones is fit again after a knee injury but may settle for a place on the bench with Niall Canavan starting. Garry Thompson remains sidelined with a groin injury and on-loan Brighton left-back Jim McNulty is out with an ankle problem.
“We’ve got this absolutely massive occasion with Manchester United coming to town, and there should be an incredible atmosphere in the stadium. But there will be no pressure on us to win the game except the pressure we put on ourselves,” said Baraclough, who is likely to be named as Scunthorpe’s permanent manager.
“Whatever team United put out it will be full of internationals, and if they’re at their best then our chances of winning will be minimal. But if we’re at our best and they have an off-night, there’s no reason why we can’t win the game.”
Scunthorpe has beaten Sheffield Wednesday and Oldham on route to the Carling Cup second round this season.