Ferguson puts Foster in at deep end

Sir Alex Ferguson was a man in a hurry yesterday, keen to leave Manchester for Cheltenham before much of the morning was out. But he admitted before doing so that sending Ben Foster out for his full debut at Derby today represented a serious punt. "In terms of the match side of it obviously we don't know [how he will fare]... because he has only had one reserve game," said Ferguson. "But he has so many assets that I am confident about it."

The 24-year-old, who only returned for United's reserves last week after 10 months out with knee ligament damage, is thrust into the fray after his side's disastrous afternoon against Portsmouth saw Edwin van der Sar aggravate a groin strain and Tomasz Kuszczak receive a one-match ban after his sending off. That leaves United with Foster, a player considerably more familiar with Derby's plight after his heroics on loan at Watford last season than the sight of Ferdinand, Vidic & Co in front of him.

Ferguson, who had been all set to send the £1m acquisition from Stoke out on loan to Coventry – with several Championship clubs and one from League One interested, has already served a reminder to Fabio Capello of Foster's ability and he considers him potentially England's best. "Everyone recognises that he is potentially the top goalkeeper England have available," Ferguson said. "I think he is above them all. He's been back here [from Watford] for a long time of course – he had his operation last June. But his rehabilitation went right, we did all the right things, and he has come through very well."

Derby, recovering from the midweek panning at Stamford Bridge, hardly present a formidable test for Foster and United's comparatively poor record against them (14 wins from 51 games compared with Derby's 19) is surely an irrelevance. But the prospect of moving ahead of Arsenal again, should they win today and again at home to Bolton on Wednesday, provides an added incentive f or United.

"The important thing is to get consistency to make sure that we don't drop from a good level because with 10 games left it is going to be about consistency," said Ferguson, who hopes to have Louis Saha involved in some capacity despite the Frenchman sustaining yet another warm-up injury last weekend. "When you look at our programme we've got a tough programme. But then I look at Arsenal's and Chelsea's and it is equally tough. It is not going to be easy. It is going to be very, very close this season – it could even go to the last game."

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