Football: Cup no relegation issue for Fergie

Nick Townsend says Wembley remains a coveted goal for high flyers
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The Independent Online
ALEX FERGUSON refuses to contemplate sacrificing a date at Wembley to further his team's chances of the ultimate prize that has so far eluded him, the Champions' League. Manchester United meet Chelsea today at Old Trafford in their FA Cup quarter-final, the first of four games in 11 days, culminating in the return leg of their quarter-final tie with Internazionale.

Last season, he fielded a weakened team against Barnsley in the fifth round and saw his charges eliminated 3-2 at Oakwell after being held to a 1-1 draw at home, but his men have already demonstrated this season against Liverpool - whom they defeated with late goals by Dwight Yorke and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - that the Cup has not been relegated to a poor third in their priorities. "Against Barnsley last year, we took a risk," Ferguson admitted. "On Sunday, we will be putting out a side to win. Going to Wembley is a big, big thing for players like Jaap Stam, Dwight Yorke and Jesper Blomqvist. They would hate to go through their career without going there."

However, Ferguson will be forced to make defensive changes today from the team who eclipsed Inter 2-0. Stam is suspended and Ronny Johnsen, who was injured and substituted at half-time on Wednesday, is unlikely to return until the second leg at the earliest. Their places are likely to be filled by two out of Henning Berg, Gary Neville and Wes Brown.

It is at such times that Ferguson can depend on the impressive pool of players that others can merely covet and this explains why he exudes confidence, tempered with caution, when reflecting on United's prospects in Milan. "We've got them on the back foot," he insisted. "We are capable of better performances than we showed on Wednesday, but not necessarily a better result. Now we've got to show our courage in the atmosphere of the San Siro. We'll be looking for players to show a certain maturity. People like Keane, Stam, Schmeichel and Irwin are going to be vital for us."

Ferguson believes that his team will have learned lessons from the group phase game in Barcelona. "Our first half there was absolutely magnificent, but by the end we had to scramble a 3-3 draw. There were periods when I thought we were getting torn apart and periods when I thought we were tearing them apart. I won't look for that see-saw approach in the Inter game."

The most intriguing element of that encounter will be the availability, or otherwise, of Ronaldo. "I would imagine they're desperate to get him back, but from what I gather that won't be so simple," Ferguson said. "We've got to assume that he'll play against us and we'll have to legislate for that and make sure that tactically we're ready to counter it."

He added: "We've a massive job to do in Milan. We're not past the post yet. We know that. Things can happen when you go to play in Italy and English teams have suffered badly going to play second legs there. But the key thing is that they went away from Old Trafford knowing they have a mountain to climb. That's good."

Before that date with destiny United face Liverpool and Newcastle away in the Premiership, and Ferguson warned: "I don't think we can make a mistake in the League. We can't surrender ground to Arsenal and Chelsea. It's very tight."