Ferguson demands show of strength as patience wears thin

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The Independent Online

For Manchester United, facing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge after being held by Exeter at Old Trafford is rather like attempting to scale the Eiger after failing to climb Primrose Hill.

For Manchester United, facing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge after being held by Exeter at Old Trafford is rather like attempting to scale the Eiger after failing to climb Primrose Hill.

Sir Alex Ferguson's patience with the reserves who failed to overcome the Conference side in the FA Cup has worn very thin. However, with a vital Premiership encounter early on Saturday afternoon at Liverpool looming, some of those who produced what Ferguson described as the worst Cup display in his 18 years at Old Trafford will be retained for tonight's Carling Cup semi-final. The team he will send to London for this evening's first leg will, Ferguson said, be "a strong side without being the strongest".

Nevertheless, Louis Saha, who has not started a match for Manchester United since scoring in the 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace in the same competition in November, will be involved and should partner Wayne Rooney up front. At least, unlike those involved against Exeter, they will not be playing for their reputation.

Ferguson was in a sanguine mood yesterday. Even if Manchester United beat Chelsea tonight, he did not imagine it would have much of an impact on the Premiership. Throughout the season, Ferguson has insisted Jose Mourinho's side would eventually hit a blip, but yesterday he conceded that so powerfully have Chelsea been steamrollering through the fixture list that now this might not happen.

"Chelsea have had a good season with great momentum," he said. "Eleven points clear of us and seven points clear of Arsenal tells its own story. They have the consistency; people talk about them having had the breaks but everyone has breaks when you win something. They may go through the season without a blip, who can say?"

Chelsea, like Manchester United, are still involved in all four major competitions and although Ferguson said Mourinho had "no chance" of bringing four trophies to west London, he thought three might not be beyond the realm of fantasy.

"The treble is more feasible, but you still need a lot of luck," Ferguson reflected. "When we did it in 1999, we had only one player missing for the European Cup final and that was Henning Berg. Everyone remained fit for that last run-in."

Nevertheless, Ferguson does not take any semi-final lightly. He has never lost one domestically in his time at Old Trafford and Manchester United have not failed at the penultimate hurdle since going down to Leeds in the FA Cup semis in 1970.

Mourinho is also likely to field a lesser side tonight, although in the days of Roman Abramovich, Chelsea's reserves are rather different to anyone else's. When they took on West Ham United in an earlier round of the competition, their side cost collectively more than £90m.

Joe Cole is ready to make his third successive start for Chelsea, which is no mean feat for a young midfielder who two months ago was told he had no future at Stamford Bridge unless he dramatically improved the defensive quality of his play.

"I have tried to take things on from the manager and I feel I have taken another step up," he said. "What Jose meant was the way I was playing I couldn't play in his system. I've done a lot of hard work on tactical things and my positioning.

"The manager wanted me to put my foot in more, but I've done that before in my career when I was in a relegation fight with West Ham."

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