Ferguson sets out the Ruud realities

'Louis deserved to start the final. That's definite. Everything else is secondary'
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A £19m striker was yesterday told by Sir Alex Ferguson that if it is the halcyon days of 1999 he wishes to recreate, he must accept three facts of life - the fierce competition that led to the club's historic treble, the occasional disappointment he found so difficult to bear at the Millennium Stadium and that sometimes he will be occupying the bench.

Both Van Nistelrooy and the Manchester United manager have dismissed suggestions of a rift following the 29-year-old's omission against Wigan Athletic last Sunday, and Ferguson's decision to start with Louis Saha was based on the form and future of the French international rather than a calculated snub to the Dutchman.

"If I didn't play Louis in the final after he had scored so many goals, he might have said to himself 'I can get a regular place somewhere else'. There was a danger of losing him," admitted the Scot, who then denied that the same theory applies to the proven goalscorer who did miss out. "After one game? No way. Louis deserved to start the final. That's a definite. Everything else is secondary."

Nevertheless, Ferguson has made it clear that having ended Van Nistelrooy's days as an automatic choice last weekend, he expects the forward to respond in a manner that will help United achieve their one remaining target for the season - second place in the Premiership - and banish any uncertainty about his future at Old Trafford. "We had four strikers a few years ago and it was always difficult when we picked a team then," said the United manager. "There was always disappointment and, of course everyone wants to play in a final. It's nothing new. I had it in '99 and the two players I left out in the [European Cup] final won us the game. Competition is good. Players should benefit from competition whether it's from their own team-mates or from opponents. The team now has the challenge of finishing second in the League, taking it Chelsea are not going to slip up now, and the players realise how important that is."

With doubts persisting over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's ability to make a complete recovery from the knee problem that has blighted him for almost two years and the highly regarded Giuseppe Rossi still untested at Premiership level, Ferguson's longing for the depth of his attacking options in 1999 - when Andrew Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Solskjaer were all instrumental in winning the League, FA Cup and European Cup treble - suggests he will seek an addition to Van Nistelrooy, Saha and Wayne Rooney in the summer.

Midfield, of course, remains the United manager's primary concern for the close season and while appearing unperturbed by Chelsea's interest in Michael Ballack, Ferguson insisted he would not be tempted to play Paul Scholes this season despite the former England international's return to light training. Scholes has not played since suffering a head injury at Birmingham City on 28 December that badly affected his sight and, though he made a surprise comeback at Carrington this week, he was not involved in contact sport. "Paul is coming on. There has been a good improvement in him and he came into training the other day, which was good to see," said Ferguson. "The prospects are a bit more positive in terms of when he will be back but we are not rushing him. If he is back for the start of next season I would be delighted."

Though Ferguson insisted the Carling Cup victory "does not mean a lot to me personally, it was more for the club", he believes the first trophy in the United career of Rooney, Saha, Kieran Richardson, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and even Edwin Van der Sar will inspire the confidence required to make next season's title race far more competitive. "We have an emerging team and it is our challenge to make sure [continued dominance by Chelsea] doesn't apply," he said.

United are not in action until Monday, when they meet Wigan in a Premiership fixture that will be preceded by a minute's silence in memory of paratrooper Lee Ellis. The former apprentice goalkeeper at the JJB Stadium was killed in a roadside explosion in southern Iraq this week at the age of 23.

Final word on Ruud omission

* FERGIE LAST WEEKEND: 'The top scorer in the League Cup has been Louis Saha and that is the reason he played.'

* FERGIE YESTERDAY: 'Everyone wants to play in a final. It's nothing new. Competition is good. Players should benefit from competition.'