United's Double indemnity

FA CUP FINAL: Twin peaks beckon for the holders but Everton aim to deal another knock-out blow
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHERE were we this weekend a year ago? Oh yes, acclaiming Manchester United as outstanding champions, assessing their FA Cup final prospects, and reflecting on how unwillingly the Double gives itself up.

Plus a change, as a certain Frenchman at Old Trafford might remark. After 12 of the most turbulent months in the history of English football, United can still be champions and, almost unbelievably, a unique double Double beckons. "Let's no' get greedy. One trophy a year will do me," says the United manager, Alex Ferguson, but it has clearly entered his mind too; indeed, he addressed the subject in his programme notes for Wednesday's match against Southampton.

Should United fail to win the Premiership, or rather Blackburn Rovers succeed, next Saturday's FA Cup final against Everton offers an opportunity for ample consolation. It is one they should take with something to spare, if league positions are to be believed, and with the Wembley pitch suited to United's more expansive game.

The wide open spaces are something of a myth, however, with the Wembley area measuring 115 yards by 75, compared to Old Trafford's 116 by 76 and Goodison Park's 112 by 78. Besides which, Cup competitions, thankfully in these big- getting-bigger days, are still prone to defying league order.

"There are no favourites in finals," said Arsenal's caretaker manager Stewart Houston last week before Real Zaragoza upset the odds. "I played for Manchester United when they lost 1-0 to Southampton in 1976 and that has stayed with me through my career."

To be considered is Everton's form in Cup competition and, more importantly, United's weakened team, which has made their Championship challenge all the more remarkable. There is also the matter of Everton's scrappy 1-0 win over United at Goodison Park.

In beating Norwich City 5-0, long before they were a glint in the Endsleigh League's eye, and especially Tottenham 4-1 - the only goal they have conceded in the competition - Everton have shown themselves a formidable and often attractive outfit, certainly more so than the team that has drawn out its escape from relegation.

Much for them depends on the fitness of Duncan Ferguson. The tall striker has galvanised Everton since his £4m move from Rangers and formed an effective partnership with Paul Rideout. The pair are particularly sympathetic to Andy Hinchcliffe's incisive left-footed dead-ball kicking.

It is likely to mean a place on the substitute's bench for Daniel Amokachi, scorer of two goals against Tottenham. The potential is there for an echo of the 1966 final when Mike Trebilcock, who had hardly played all season, popped up to score twice for Everton in their 3-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday.

The right back Earl Barrett is Cup-tied but it is United's loss of Andy Cole for the same reason which is the greater, even if Ferguson points out that "we got here without him". Mark Hughes, though, was not then misfiring as he has been of late. A partner for him is a problem. Does Alex Ferguson move Ryan Giggs, if he recovers from a hamstring injury, Paul Scholes or Brian McClair forward?

There are several other selection problems for the manager. Roy Keane in midfield or at right-back, even though Gary Neville has escaped a suspension? It would free a midfield place for the composed, if still limited, Nicky Butt. Then again, Keane could even be used on the right of midfield in an attempt to bring some of the dash missing in Andrei Kanchelskis's absence.

It should make for as tight a match as the teams produced 10 years ago, when Kevin Moran became the first player to be sent off in a final and Norman Whiteside's goal in extra-time prevented Everton from retaining the trophy.

This season of all seasons could certainly do with a high point on the graph to match the early-season optimism that descended into ever deeper troughs in the dark days of winter. We will not escape reminders of them next Saturday and it is an appropriate, if uncomfortable, reflection of the state of the game. Paul Ince will be in court the following Tuesday to explain his part in the Eric Cantona affair; two days later Duncan Ferguson returns to Glasgow for sentencing in his head-butting case and on the Friday, Roy Keane is before the FA on the disrepute charge that followed his stamping on Gareth Southgate in the semi-final against Crystal Palace.

United's case for a trophy as reward for their continuing service in illuminating the English game, despite their misdemeanours, is a strong one; but then so is that of the admirable Joe Royle, having suffered so much with Oldham at United's hands in recent years. It may just be too early in the manager's revival of Everton, however. United by a goal.