FA Cup broadcasters ITV will react with disappointment and dismay after it emerged that tomorrow's showcase FA Cup fourth-round tie between Manchester United and Tottenham is likely to resemble a reserve team fixture.
As the fourth-round's most mouth-watering tie, the match has been allocated the prime-time 5.15pm slot by ITV, who paid £425m in conjunction with Setanta to show FA Cup and England games. Yet with the Tottenham manager, Harry Redknapp, admitting that he would field his "weakest team possible" and Manchester United hit by a raft of injuries, viewers will have every right to feel short-changed.
It is bad news for the independent network, which has stumped up £275m as its share of a four-year contract, only £25m less than BBC and BSkyB paid together in the previous deal. Setanta is putting up £150m.
Viewing figures for ITV's third-round coverage were unimpressive, with only 2.3 million tuning in to their highlights show, and Redknapp's promise to rest key players against an injury-hit United at Old Trafford is the last thing the company wanted to hear.
An ITV spokesman last night shied away from public criticism of Redknapp's remarks, insisting that "which players take part are decisions for the managers of the teams involved and not something we can comment upon." Privately, however, ITV will be upset particularly after learning that Redknapp is unlikely to be censured.
Even though FA Cup rules state clearly that "each team shall represent the full available strength of each competing club" Redknapp's plan to rest Jonathan Woodgate, Michael Dawson and Roman Pavlyuchenko among others will not attract any punishment, with the FA satisfied that Tottenham would field a line-up worthy of the competition. "Undoubtedly, Tottenham will be selecting a team from their first-team squad," an FA spokesman said.
Redknapp says he has no option but to rest players ahead of the Premier League game with Stoke at White Hart Lane on Tuesday, a fixture perceived as critical in the battle to stay in the Premier League. Around 4,000 Spurs fans, paying up to £49 each, are expected to make the 400-mile round trip to Old Trafford, but Redknapp is adamant those numbers will not influence his team selection. "That's how it is going to be, I'm afraid," he said. "I've got to rest people. I can't afford to take the chance. We are in a relegation battle. Woodgate can't play, Dawson can't play. I can't risk them even though I've got no other defenders."
Jamie O'Hara has joined Ledley King as a definite absentee, while Heurelho Gomes, Vedran Corluka, Aaron Lennon, Jermaine Jenas and Darren Bent all missed Wednesday's Carling Cup semi-final second leg at Burnley, where Tottenham just avoided an embarrassing exit.
Woodgate (back), Dawson (calf/ shin) and Pavlyuchenko (ankle/foot) all took part despite carrying injuries, the two defenders playing the full 120 minutes. David Bentley, Luka Modric and Didier Zokora may also find themselves kept under wraps. Redknapp confirmed that the goalkeeper Ben Alnwick would keep his place at Old Trafford.
The striker Fraizer Campbell, on loan from Manchester United, will not be allowed to play, while Wilson Palacios, the dynamic midfield player signed from Wigan for £12m this week, is suspended and Cup tied. In addition to Alnwick, defender Chris Gunter and midfielder Tom Huddlestone may keep their places. Defender Ricardo Rocha would seem a prime candidate for his first appearance this season, while teenagers Dorian Dervite, Tomas Pekhart, Giovani and Adel Taarabt could get a chance, along with experienced Brazilian defender Gilberto.
Not-so-hot Spurs: Potential Cup side
Substitutes: Jansson (gk), Gilberto, Bentley, Zokora, Pekhart, Smith, Defoe