Liverpool to seize the day

FA Cup final : Best of British youth poised to dazzle as leading northern lights stage a repeat performance 19 years on
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The Independent Online
He failed by one match to make it to Wembley in what has proved to be his final season at Chelsea, but in spirit at least Glenn Hoddle will surely be there for Saturday's FA Cup final in his new capacity as England's coach. The national game and team's very future is on exhibition.

The meeting of Liverpool and Manchester United evokes epic days and intense rivalry. This time, the presence on both sides of so many gifted young players gives the confrontation a fresh, enthusiastic edge appropriate to a new era of enlightenment in the Premiership. These are the children of the revolution; this the fledglings' final.

United are at present the more richly endowed with young talent, though Liverpool are clearly catching up, this week taking a hold on the FA Youth Cup with a 2-0 win in the first leg of the final at West Ham. Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane - who is still only 24 himself - and Eric Cantona may form an experienced and formidable foreign trunk but around them grow sturdy English branches, with five squad players of 21 and under. Even Ryan Giggs, the Englishman who got away, is only 22.

At the other end of the East Lancs Road, the side Liverpool - all English- born or England-qualified - can respond with includes Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler. And how did Steve McManaman, who remains a fresh and effervescent talent, get to be 24?

To ask the United manager Alex Ferguson to describe his tyros is to be treated to a treatise of pride and achievement. "Butt was the first of that youth team to get in the first team because he was ahead of the rest in mental toughness," he said. "The Nevilles are strong boys, too, not far behind. Beckham has had a bit of growing to do but he has a tremendous range of passing, is prepared to try things and has imagination." The best passer? "No, that's Scholes." Sure of their ability, Ferguson's only question, he said, was their temperament when dropped into the deep end. Any doubts have been dispelled.

In the final, much will depend on whether Keane - who has become crucial as he has filled the void left by Paul Ince - and Nicky Butt can establish control of central midfield. There, Redknapp and the enduringly shrewd John Barnes can dictate the rhythm of a match, if allowed to, with some of the slickest and most accurate passing currently on view in this country.

"They are very difficult to play against because they move the ball about so well," said the Arsenal manager, Bruce Rioch. "They can frustrate you by keeping possession and it can be irritating. With them you have got to get more people round the ball more often." Indeed, pressing quickly will be United's aim and they will need to tackle in pairs.

Should Liverpool get into their impressive routine, and the supply lines be established, United's back four will be presented with some knotty problems. Only Fowler will play as an out-and-out striker, with Stan Collymore dropping deeper and wider and McManaman licensed to "go out there and drop a few grenades" as Bill Shankly used to instruct Kevin Keegan in his Anfield days. Do I go or should I stay? will be the question for Steve Bruce, should his hamstring have healed, and Gary Pallister.

A problem for Liverpool of late is that they have slipped into some sloppy habits. At Highbury on Wednesday, for example, the defence looked complacent and there seemed some creative tension between McManaman and Stan Collymore, who were wandering into each other's areas. Whereas United have remained battle-hardened after a championship finale that has required them to be at their most intense, Liverpool have simply been polishing their weapons since their own title push was halted.

"You have got to have standards, and we have fallen from those standards in recent games," the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, admitted. "We can go in five minutes from being a good side to being a bad one. It's an attitude of mind. We are at our best when we play as a team. Then the individuals shine. When players think they have to do something special that's when we can look very average."

One hopes that the potentially sensational Fowler, scorer of four goals against United this season including two in Cantona's comeback game last October where he, not the Frenchman, was the outstanding figure, is not caught in the rut. His last visit to Wembley may have left him deflated. Even though he performed competently on his England debut, against Croatia, high expectations of him were unfulfilled.

"All this 'Fowler Howler' stuff wasn't very nice and he didn't deserve it," Evans said. "But he knows he didn't do too badly, although he might have taken at least one of the chances on another night. I don't think he'll need lifting, not for a Cup final. He does fancy Manchester United, but he fancies everybody."

Of more concern to Liverpool will be that defence. David James, always an agile shot-stopper, has added a growing command of his area to his repertoire, though Evans notes "a few dodgy throw-outs" and he is still prone to making one mistake a match. In front of him, they will hope that Mark Wright has recovered from a back injury to bring some composure.

The left-sided position of their three-man back line will be between Neil Ruddock and Phil Babb, with Ruddock's better distribution skills the greater attraction, his questioning left foot offering an alternative to all the short passing.

United, through Giggs on the left and probably the fast-developing David Beckham on the right, will look to exploit the spaces between the flank defenders and the wing-backs Jason McAteer and Rob Jones. Too often Liverpool's trio, all central defenders by instinct, are caught so bunched that a blanket could be thrown over them. Cantona can be expected to pick at the fabric to supply either Andy Cole or Scholes, who provide Ferguson with a difficult selection.

All the evidence should point to a win for United, with their solid spine and experience of the big occasion, enhanced by some youthful exuberance. But so it was last year when they lost to Everton. As then, a lot will depend on their reaction to today's final Premiership match.

On their day, in one-off competition, Liverpool can be the most effective team in the country and should they shake off their recent torpor, this could be their day. Against United this season, they have averaged two goals for and one against. That score could well be repeated in a final that should be well above average.