Everton ready for a war of attrition

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Football Correspondent

The special guests are royalty - Prince Charles and sons- but judging by the advance billing, Jean Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger would be more appropriate standard bearers for the 114th FA Cup final.

In the red corner are Fergie's Fireballs, brilliant but volatile; in the blue, Joe Royle's Dogs of War; both limbering up for a war of attrition. So goes the pre-match hype, which has mercifully been reduced to five days instead of the normal six weeks, thanks to the compelling finish to the Premiership.

Because of that, both clubs really have - uncommonly - been "taking each match as it comes" and not thinking of Wembley. Instead, they were dreaming of treble tops, or having nightmares about the Endsleigh. Thus the greatest club match in the world has appeared in their diaries like a long-forgotten, but potentially delightful, dinner-date.

In the event, United narrowly failed to win the Premiership, while Everton just managed to stay in it. They may now view the final as respectively a consolation or a bonus. This could mean an open game, full of thrills and skills and goalmouth incident, which would make it the best since 1991.

However, Tottenham's win over Nottingham Forest that year is best remembered for its opening tackles - when Gazza lost his head, then wrecked his knee - and there are signs that today's combatants will adopt a similar approach.

For Everton, Joe Parkinson declared: "We have got to get stuck into them because they don't like that. They are a team that can dish it out, but they don't like it when they are on the receiving end."

The Red Devils' reply, articulated (if that is right word) by Roy Keane, was: "If it does get physical, we will be ready for it." And if anyone does not believe him, Gareth Southgate of Crystal Palace will back him up.

Keane's appearance in the final, after stamping on Southgate during a semi-final played in the shadow of the tragedy of a supporter's death beforehand, leaves a sour taste. He appears before the Football Association's disciplinary tribunal on Friday, three days after Paul Ince faces a magistrates' court, accused of common assault during an earlier infamous encounter with Crystal Palace.

Not that Everton can take the moral high ground. Duncan Ferguson, their cult hero and bludgeoning edge, appears in a Scottish court for sentencing on Thursday, having been found guilty last week of assault.

Not, then, the most auspicious cast to put before the world, although it is a fair reflection of this season's travails. For all the sleaze, the campaign has also been marked by some glorious and passionate football, and there is potential for more of that today.

United, even without Eric Cantona, are capable of magnificence, while Everton were outstanding in their semi-final win over Tottenham. In Ryan Giggs and Anders Limpar, each side has a player of real quality.

They are also more evenly matched elsewhere than might appear from their league positions. There is little to choose between the goalkeepers and both are strong in central defence. Everton are weak on the flanks, but with Andrei Kanchelskis injured and Giggs unsure of fitness and position, they may avoid punishment.

In attack, Everton are relatively predictable; early balls hit to Ferguson's head with Paul Rideout making either an alternative target or feeding on the knock-downs. United, with Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, are better equipped than most teams to deal with this, but they could be outnumbered at Andy Hinchcliffe's corners.

Basic stuff, but in recent weeks Limpar has added refinement, and Royle will have either Daniel Amokachi or Graham Stuart (or both) on the bench to provide a different dimension.

United are more fluid, but much depends on Giggs. If he plays on the right with Lee Sharpe on the left, Everton could be stretched. Mark Hughes' goals have dried up, but he has scored in his last four Wembley appearances - most memorably, as Royle will painfully recall, against Oldham in last season's semi-final.

But it keeps coming back to midfield. United could add Brian McClair, Nicky Butt and Sharpe, but are as likely to crowd themselves out as overwhelm Everton if they do. At the core will be Ince and Keane against Barry Horne and Parkinson (or John Ebbrell). It looks a walk-over, but is unlikely to be one.

"I think it will be a physical contest, and Paul and Roy can match anybody physically and mentally," said Bruce, the United captain. "I would not want the FA Cup final to be anything less. I just hope that the referee lets it flow."

Free-kicks could be important, especially around the box where Denis Irwin (United's top scorer in this season's FA Cup) and Hinchcliffe are deadly.

Indeed, the game could well be settled by set-pieces. While Everton have concentrated on them since Royle took over as manager, Manchester United have only recently started scoring regularly this way, possibly because the absence of Cantona, then Kanchelskis, has reduced their penetration from open play.

United have not been doing any extra work on them, but Alex Ferguson said that they had been working on defending Everton's corner routine.

The referee is Gerald Ashby, the man who dismissed Henning Berg after his clean tackle on Sharpe earlier in the season and set United on the way to winning at Ewood Park. Ten years ago, when these sides met in the final, Roger Willis wrote his and Kevin Moran's names into the record books when he sent off the Manchester United defender.

United still won, mainly because Everton were shattered after winning the Championship and European Cup-Winners' Cup during the week. United are the favourites this time, but Everton should be slightly fresher. They will need to be because their game demands more running, and extra- time is very possible.

When it is over, the only certainty is that a former Norwich centre-half will be holding the trophy. Which one? It just might be Dave Watson, not Bruce, and the romantic would like to see Amokachi scoring the winner.

Paul Ince set to govern, page 46