Ferguson fury over losing England pair

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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson blamed the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, for forcing him to drop both Phil Neville and Nicky Butt from today's FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal.

The Manchester United manager, angered by the use of Butt for the majority and Neville for the whole of England's defeat in Sweden on Wednesday night, argued that neither was in a fit state to start what has become the club's pivotal game of the season. But Eriksson claimed there had been no agreement with United to rest either of them in Gothenburg, adding: "I believe they will both have benefited from the game on Wednesday."

"I don't know why they didn't just play a half and nor do they," Ferguson said, although he did not acknowledge that Butt had been brought off after 78 minutes. "I am disappointed they played the full game. I have had no explanation, nothing at all. I cannot go into a game of this nature against Arsenal with players who have played 90 minutes on a Wednesday night. There were a lot of tackles in that game. Sweden were very aggressive."

Ferguson said that Eriksson usually phoned him before friendlies to ask for his opinion but had not done so this time. "I didn't want Paul Scholes and Gary Neville to go away, so there was a bit of come-and-go there. The players [Phil Neville and Butt] were told they wouldn't play the full 90. I am not saying both would have played against Arsenal but one of them definitely would have."

However, in Eriksson's defence it should be pointed out that in February Butt had played longer for England in Portugal (86 minutes) than he did in Sweden, returned to Manchester, where he started a 12.30pm match against Leeds, then flew back to Portugal on the Tuesday to start against Porto in the Champions' League.

Ferguson has never lost any of his nine domestic semi-finals since coming to Old Trafford, although four of his five FA Cup semi-final victories required a replay, most notably the epic encounter with Arsenal five years ago, settled by Ryan Giggs' extraordinary running goal.

Then, as now, Ferguson was prepared to drop players. "People forget I left out Scholes, Giggs, Cole and Yorke from the starting line-up with a view to the forthcoming European Cup semi-final with Juventus," he said. This was, however, a tactic that dismayed United's directors at Villa Park until Giggs came on to strike.

Arsène Wenger thought it a defining moment in that season, which ended with United taking the Premiership by a single point.

It is one reason why the Arsenal manager, who has lost one FA Cup tie - a final - except on penalties since that night in Birmingham, will not countenance tossing away the FA Cup for strategic reasons. Too much momentum might be lost.

This time, however, United may have to make do without their greatest asset, Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was yesterday struggling to shake off a knee injury he picked up in Sunday's 1-1 draw at Highbury. Van Nistelrooy did not play for the Netherlands on Wednesday, although his national manager, Dick Advocaat, was far more upbeat about his chances of starting today's game than Ferguson, who said the striker was "very, very doubtful". Wenger thought he would play.

Weariness will also determine Wenger's team. With Arsenal facing their four toughest opponents - United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle - in eight days in three separate competitions, Thierry Henry is likely to be rested. "He just can't know what it's like to play four games in eight days," Ferguson taunted when Wenger opposed his attempt to extend the 1996-97 season. He does now. The programme was, Wenger said, "beyond common sense".

But Arsenal still managed to knock Manchester United out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford last year with Henry starting the game on the substitutes' bench.

After losing the 1999 semi-final, Wenger refused to shake Ferguson's hand, something the United manager has always remembered. "He says I was not gracious in defeat?" Wenger remarked. "That could be one of my weaknesses, I have many of them but I have nothing personal with Ferguson, I just want to win the games."

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