United can save season - if not club

FA Cup final: Glazer crisis an unwelcome backdrop as Ferguson seeks sweet consolation in a showpiece to savour
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The Independent Online

Memo to Joel and Avi Glazer: "Avid fans or not, best not turn up at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday for Manchester United's match of the season. Apart from any considerations of personal safety, the ensuing riot would in all probability lead to the game being abandoned and Arsenal being awarded the Cup, which would not be the best start to Dad's regime.

Memo to Joel and Avi Glazer: "Avid fans or not, best not turn up at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday for Manchester United's match of the season. Apart from any considerations of personal safety, the ensuing riot would in all probability lead to the game being abandoned and Arsenal being awarded the Cup, which would not be the best start to Dad's regime.

"Better by far to sit at home with fingers crossed and hope for a win that would ensure a slightly less miserable summer for the club's disenchanted supporters, as well as deterring Sir Alex Ferguson from any thoughts of a destabilising retirement."

Such a victory would give Ferguson another credit on his CV, as one of surprisingly few managers to have claimed the Cup in successive seasons, and allow everyone at the club some much-needed breathing space from the Malcolm Glazer takeover affair. It would also be much easier to attain if the opposition were Millwall again rather than the team who could finish up to 12 points ahead of them in the Premiership today.

In the FA Cup, however, almost in spite of itself, the cream keeps rising to the top. Scarcely a Wembley final took place in the Nineties without one of the country's élite clubs gracing it. Then, in the first two years after the main event had decamped down the M4 to the chaos of Cardiff, Arsenal were brought together with Liverpool and Chelsea.

Last year's dream final would have pitted them against United, but the democracy of the semi-final draw denied us that pleasure for 12 months, offering only Millwall's ill-equipped challenge. This year, with the sour taste provided by Blackburn Rovers' presence in the last four washed away, there is a final to savour again.

Ferguson and Arsène Wenger may have taken liberties with their team selection early on, but both have looked increasingly certain once the competition wore on and began to throw Premiership opposition in their path. Arsenal, having stumbled past Sheffield United on penalties, overcame Lancashire steel in Bolton and Blackburn without conceding a goal.

Since Ferguson's public apology for United's worst Cup performance in memory, the goalless draw at home to non-League Exeter, his team have swept past Middlesbrough, Everton, Southampton and Newcastle in subse- quent rounds, scoring 13 goals against one.

That run is one of two significant factors encouraging the club amid the current crisis - not too strong a word for once - of form and ownership. The FA Cup and Arsenal, United believe, bring out the best in them. When the two coincide, Ferguson's assistant, Carlos Queiroz, claimed last Friday, favour-itism is irrelevant and so is current form; even when one team are on a run of 12 wins and two draws (goals 27, against two) and have just beaten Everton 7-0, while the other have stuttered so badly.

"It was a great result for Arsenal," said Queiroz, while insisting the events of last week had not distracted prep-arations. "But trust me, the result against Everton will not help beat United in the final. It will be a different game and it's 50-50.

"Of course, both teams need to win this trophy to make something positive in terms of our season. That's why the game is so interesting. What we did during the season, or seven days before, doesn't have any influence. It's a unique environment and we like that, it's the right environment for Manchester United. That's why we're so confident and have this belief that the trophy is ours."

It is certainly the attitude United have taken into the most recent high-profile games against Arsenal, with great success, winning 4-2 at Highbury and 2-0 at Old Trafford this season, and 1-0 in the Cup semi-final at Villa Park 13 months ago.

On each occasion, Wenger's team were in the more impressive form but seemed taken aback by their opponents' ferocity, which on the last occasion even began in the tunnel, with Roy Keane confronting Patrick Vieira. Since that defeat, they have at least recovered second place in the Premiership, whereas the loss last October, ending an unbeaten run of 49 League games, had unexpectedly severe repercussions. From standing five points ahead of Chelsea at the top of the table, Arsenal slipped five points behind them in the space of a month. It was not only pizza that was thrown away.

"We suffered psychologically a lot," Wenger admitted. "For a while it was all doom and gloom. What affected us was discovering we were beatable. We had to live with that, and it took us a while to get up there again."

And the lesson for Saturday? "I'll make sure we focus completely on the way we want to play the game and not worry about Manchester United. The mental state of the team has to be right."

That will mean, above all, being prepared for a physical challenge right from the kick-off and not lapsing into complacency. Anyone wanting to replicate the moves of 26 and 31 successive passes recorded against Everton had better be wearing extra-thick shin-pads.

The experience of the previous meetings will surely influence Wenger's team sel-ection. Given a fully-fit squad, it would be no surprise if younger hands like Robin van Persie, Jose Antonio Reyes, Francesc Fabregas and either Philippe Senderos or Kolo Touré began the afternoon sitting down while Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Fredrik Ljungberg and Sol Campbell were out on the pitch. Yet none of the latter quartet have been regulars recently, with Henry, Campbell and Ljungberg only just back from injury.

Barring accidents against a fired-up Southampton this afternoon, Ferguson should have everyone bar the left-back Gabriel Heinze to pick from, and will be the more likely to put his faith in exciting youth. Cristiano Ronaldo was the outstanding performer in last season's final for everyone except the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson (who nominated Ruud van Nistelrooy as official man of the match); the only doubt over Wayne Rooney is whether he concludes his first season at the club playing wide on the left or closer to Van Nistelrooy; and since the manager inexplicably prefers him out wide, there is room for the fast-improving Darren Fletcher to form a tight midfield trio with Keane and Paul Scholes.

Ryan Giggs would then be left in reserve to try to revive United's fortunes if things go against them, which must be the outcome that United's currently demoral-ised following fear.

The rest of us must piously agree with Wenger that: "The [Old Trafford] game was bad publicity for English football and we have to make sure the game is a real football game." That's soccer game, to you and dad, Joel. Find a television set.

Peter Corrigan, page 16 Don't weep for Man United by Jason Nissé, News, page 25 Business, pages 1-2

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