Howard backed and dropped in one swift movement

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The Independent Football

Despite mounting a fierce defence of Tim Howard, criticised for Chelsea's bizarre winner in the Carling Cup semi-final, Sir Alex Ferguson has discarded the American keeper for today's FA Cup encounter with Middlesbrough.

Despite mounting a fierce defence of Tim Howard, criticised for Chelsea's bizarre winner in the Carling Cup semi-final, Sir Alex Ferguson has discarded the American keeper for today's FA Cup encounter with Middlesbrough.

The Manchester United manager stated that it had been his policy to include Howard only for Carling Cup matches and the fact that he had played in the FA Cup against Exeter was because of the relatively poor quality of the opposition. Given this, it is hard to see any realistic route back for a man signed for £3.5m from New York MetroStars before the end of the season.

Well though Howard played against Chelsea at Old Trafford, the game was settled by a free-kick from Damien Duff that was allowed by his defenders to bounce in the area and settle in the net with the United keeper stranded.

"I am telling you right now that the weight the ball is nowadays, if it's whipped in and you've got people attacking it, there is no way the goalkeeper can come because it just needs a defender to get a touch and you're knackered," Ferguson said yesterday.

"Think about it; you've got Rio Ferdinand charging down in front of you, Silvestre, Heinze, Terry, Gallas, Tiago all bearing down on you and the ball comes in over the first defender's head and that is not easy to handle. It should have been headed clear."

Roy Carroll, whom Ferguson claims has still not accepted United's offer of a new contract, has kept Howard out since United scraped a fortuitous 2-2 draw with Lyon in the Champions' League on 15 September. Although he kept clean sheets against Crewe, Crystal Palace and Arsenal in the Carling Cup, Howard was badly at fault as Fenerbahce romped to a 3-0 victory against a virtual reserve side in Istanbul last month.

Manchester United face a delicate equation this afternoon. Retaining the FA Cup still represents Ferguson's most realistic chance of silverware but on Tuesday there is the trip to Highbury that will see either Arsenal or United knocked out of the increasingly weary race to catch Chelsea.

However, while Arsenal are at home to Wolverhampton, a side that has not won at Highbury since 1979, United face Middlesbrough, a club that has beaten them three times in as many years. Both managers will have to perform balancing acts this afternoon but the weight on Ferguson's shoulders is greater and more cumbersome than on Arséne Wenger's.

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