Sir Alex Ferguson's 900th game in charge of Manchester United tonight arrives at a time when his least convincing squad for several seasons – already vanquished more times this season than in the entire process of the last, 18th title-winning, campaign – appears to place his club at a crossroads. But the United manager has reiterated his faith in his young players, revealing he intends to deploy them in the Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City next month.
City manger Mark Hughes served a reminder on the evening that City drew United in the semi-final that Ferguson picked a strong side including Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistelrooy to face his Blackburn team in a League Cup four seasons ago but Ferguson was insistent. "We are now two games away from Wembley and that is good. We will enjoy the ties and these lads will play again," he said.
"You might think that playing Manchester City in the semi-final might test my resolve but it won't, even though Mark Hughes seems to play full-strength teams in the Carling Cup. What you have to remember is that these boys won the competition last season. They are good players and I will keep faith in them. They are the future of Manchester United and they have to learn their trade." Ferguson needs some delivery in the present, though, after Saturday evening's defeat to Aston Villa saw a chance spurned to draw level on points with Chelsea.
One of the youth contingent, Rafael da Silva, who was emerging as such a force last November, has stalled in his development. There has been a series of difficult matches, including the FA Cup semi-final against Everton, then injuries which have limited him to one league start this season. Da Silva started training last Thursday and Ferguson has predicted he will be ready to face a Wolverhampton Wanderers side tonight which is buoyed by Saturday's win at Tottenham.
Ferguson also believes that Darron Gibson has "turned the corner in his development, with his goals against Tottenham in the Carling Cup and at West Ham". "I've always said that, sometimes, a young player turns the corner and gives you problems and Darren's displays in the last two or three games have shown that," Ferguson said. "Anderson has come to the fore again." There are others in the pipeline. United will seek a work permit in January for striker Mame Biram Diouf, scouted by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from Norwegian club Molde. "That's the kind of deal we're looking at and it's the kind of situation we are good at, signing young players who can develop at the club," Ferguson said. "This lad looks very good."
But United are looking for signs that the potential of players like Gibson and Rafael can develop into genuine Premier League pedigree. The side looked average against Villa and though Nemanja Vidic led calls yesterday for an immediate recovery from their first league defeat at Old Trafford since Liverpool's 4-1 win last March – "it's important when you lose a game to have the next one quickly, so you can play better and fix what you did in the last match," he said – there has been a painful over-reliance on Wayne Rooney for goals.
The decision for Ferguson tonight is whether to consider recalling Michael Owen for only his fourth league start of the season and that does seems a strong possibility, given the frustrations of Wayne Rooney in a lone striker's role against Villa and Owen's hat-trick at Wolfsburg a week ago. Rooney – who has nearly three times as many league goals as any other United player in this campaign – cannot continue to take such a weight of responsibility and Ferguson knows that every game in which he is asked to expend such energy increases the risk of injury. The Milan Lab on which Carlo Ancelotti still draws estimates that while the risk of injury in one game is 10 per cent, it rises by 30 or 40 per cent if another intensive game follows within three or four days. The effort Rooney is being asked to expend will worry Fabio Capello if it continues into the Spring.
Wolves manager Mick McCarthy is fearing the worst. "United must be thinking, 'Wolves are coming and we have just been beaten by Villa'," he said yesterday. " 'If ever there is a chance to get yourself back on track it is to slap these insolent little so-and-sos coming up from the Black Country and we are going to give them the biggest doing they have ever had.' I would be thinking that if I was a Manchester United player. I would be rubbing my hands with glee that we were coming up. Go and have a look at the bookmakers and see what they are saying. They are not stupid." Another manager who is prepared. There are no easy games for United.
Ferguson's innings: 900 not out
*Since taking charge at Old Trafford on 6 November 1986, in his 899 league matches Sir Alex Ferguson has won 530 games, drawn 214 and lost 155, with the team scoring 1641 goals, and conceding 802. The win ratio of his 22-year tenure at Manchester United is 58.95 per cent.
*Ferguson took over from Ron Atkinson in the 1986/87 campaign, with United fourth from bottom, and guided the Red Devils to 11th place.
*Ferguson has led United to 11 League championships, equalling the overall record of 18 set by rivals Liverpool. Their first Premier League title was secured in the 1992/93 campaign, ending a 26-year wait.