Ferguson puts semi-final record on line

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The Independent Online

Jose Mourinho promised to bring a fine bottle of red - Portuguese, naturally - to help celebrate his 42nd birthday tonight but, for Sir Alex Ferguson, it will be the football that is vintage when Manchester United meet Chelsea.

Jose Mourinho promised to bring a fine bottle of red - Portuguese, naturally - to help celebrate his 42nd birthday tonight but, for Sir Alex Ferguson, it will be the football that is vintage when Manchester United meet Chelsea. Ferguson also produced another comment to savour - firmly declaring the second leg of this League Cup semi-final as a contest between "the best two sides in the country". That's another in the eye for Arsène Wenger, then.

Both teams should certainly be near full strength with Roy Keane - banned for this weekend's FA Cup tie - and Arjen Robben, the one that got away from Ferguson, starting. "It is tempting to play a strong side," Ferguson admitted. "We need to spread the load with so many big games ahead - but we are giving it serious consideration."

He also has a proud record to protect. In 19 individual semi-final matches in domestic competition with United, Ferguson has yet to finish a loser. "I hope to maintain that," he said. Despite Chelsea's formidable lead in the Premiership, Ferguson will be curious to see how they react if defeated - as will Mourinho and the rest of football.

Chelsea have lost twice - to Manchester City and in a dead European rubber to Porto without any adverse reaction. That may change, especially as it would would any talk of an unprecedented quadruple. But Ferguson was sanguine. "They have an 11-point lead [over United] and you wouldn't think that beating them would be a catalyst to eat into that," he reasoned. "It would have to be something of their own making. If we were to win the game, we would have to wait for a reaction. In the run-in Chelsea may get a blip that nobody expects, but at this moment they are flying."

The contest will represent Mourinho's first at Old Trafford since Porto dumped United out of the European Cup last March - sparking his manic touch-line jig. And there is also the added spice of Mourinho's outburst following the combative, but goalless, first leg a fortnight ago. Indeed the football will have to go some to keep all eyes from the dug-outs even if Ferguson's praise was fulsome. "Jose Mourinho has done fantastically well," he said. "They have a system; they are very organised - and once they get a goal they are very good at protecting it. But this game is not about Jose Mourinho or Alex Ferguson. This game is about 22 great players."

The Chelsea manager is still waiting to hear whether the Football Association will act over his "cheat" allegation - Mourinho has since insisted his use of the word was incorrect - which may explain his reluctance to speak publicly ever since. Yesterday he sent assistant the manager Steve Clarke although that other Scot was not biting, reiterating his belief that it is "near impossible, not impossible" for Chelsea to win all four trophies. Clarke also rated the tie as "evenly poised, 50-50".

Manchester United (probable 4-3-3): Howard; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Scholes, Keane, Fortune; Ronaldo, Smith, Rooney.

Chelsea (probable 4-3-3) Cudicini; Johnson, Terry, Gallas, Ferreira; Smertin, Makelele, Lampard, Duff, Drogba, Robben.

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