Ferguson favours Owen to protect tiring Rooney

If slightly more democratic in its favours than the FA Cup, the 50-year-old League Cup still tends to favour the bigger boys. The only final of the last 10 between genuinely unfashionable clubs was the one in which Middlesbrough beat Bolton. Aston Villa and Manchester United contest today's jubilee game as members of the Premier League's top seven and clubs with such a strong tradition in the competition that only Liverpool have appeared in more finals.

It is an eighth final for each club (Liverpool have been in 10), Villa having been the very first victors back in the early Sixties, at a time when other big clubs held the late Alan Hardaker's brainchild in such low regard that Rotherham United and then Rochdale were the first runners-up.

United came to it rather later but, despite often fielding young teams in recent years, have been sufficiently enthusiastic by the time the later stages came around to have won two of the past four tournaments. As Sir Alex Ferguson puts it: "The only way you enjoy Wembley is by winning."

The way the calendar falls this year gives him every incentive to field a strong side. A year ago, United knew there was an important League game at Newcastle three days later, which influenced the manager in leaving out Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs (until extra time), Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Edwin van der Sar.

This year it can reasonably be assumed that Ferguson will have no interest in helping the international teams who play on Wednesday, although it may again suit United's interests to rest the man of the moment, Rooney, knowing that England will play him in midweek.

As ever, Ferguson is thinking two steps ahead, and will pick his line-up in the light of fixtures against Wolves on Saturday and then Milan four days later. "It's a hard one," he said of the selection. "I've got my team for the AC Milan game anyway but this one's different so I'm still thinking about it. We're going to have to make changes and there will be two or three but I think we've got a good squad, they're a decent bunch and they'll all want to play and be motivated to win."

Thorough as ever, he has also discerned a trend about the new Wembley and its pitch that may affect his choices. "Wembley is a tiring pitch and it's a tiring occasion. You have to think that extra time could be a possibility because there's a distinct lack of goals in all the games at the new Wembley. There have been very few goals." The goalless draw in last year's disappointing final against Tottenham (United won 4-1 on penalties) meant only eight have been scored in five finals since the stadium reopened, three of which have required extra time.

The other reason not to overplay Rooney is that Ferguson is more impressed than many (including, it would appear, Fabio Capello) with Michael Owen, whose goal against West Ham in midweek delighted him as much as Rooney's headed pair. "He got between defenders, timed the run and if you watch it again from the camera that's along the line, he actually stopped and went again to make sure he wasn't offside. That's a typical Michael Owen goal. He's never missed a training session and his training performances have been very good and I think he's improved as a footballer here. He's done well but the only problem that Michael Owen has got is Wayne Rooney. That's his problem."

It is not a problem, though, that the manager believes will tempt Owen to leave this summer. "He'll definitely be here next season and I have absolutely no intention of letting him go." Owen still has the speed of movement to trouble a Villa defence not blessed with it.

Villa's Martin O'Neill enjoyed something of a love affair with the competition both as a player with Nottingham Forest (three successive finals) and then as a manager with Leicester (three finals in four years). Since then the Big Four have monopolised the prizes to such an extent that even as traditional a force as the Midlands' strongest club have not lifted a domestic trophy since the 1996 League Cup.

Having finally won a game against United two months ago, they could not repeat the feat against 10 men a fortnight ago. Today's attempt may hinge on which XI, and substitutes, Ferguson picks.

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