Arsene Wenger may deride the Carling Cup as a "non-trophy", but one of the tasks facing Aston Villa and Manchester United tomorrow is not simply to put on a show that makes the Frenchman's words sound like sour sniping but to ensure that the final fulfils the promise of two pulsating semi-final ties.
Villa came from 2-0 down to Blackburn Rovers to win the second leg by a tennis score, while United dramatically squeezed past Manchester City. "If someone had told City and United 'this isn't a real trophy' they would have got short shrift," the Villa manager, Martin O'Neill, said. Sir Alex Ferguson expected "a different type of game" at Wembley but conceded it may not reach "the same level of emotion".
This is United's third final in five years, a record which underlines the store Ferguson now sets by the competition. Having scrapped a plan to rest key personnel for the return with City, he faces a similar dilemma over whether to start with veteran goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and 27-goal Wayne Rooney tomorrow.
Since the game may represent United's best chance of silverware, the probability is that both potential match-winners will play. For Villa, who have not lifted a trophy since winning this cup 14 years ago, the only selection quandaries are whether to play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, incorporating Fabian Delph, and whether to retain John Carew at Emile Heskey's expense.
"The club has had a pretty poor time of it since winning the European Cup in 1982," O'Neill said. "They won the League Cup against United in '94 and again in '96 [against Leeds], but Chelsea at Wembley in 2000 is the only FA Cup final since '57. It's up to us to try to change that. It's something new for a lot of the players and I hope it's genuinely the start of something for this team."
Villa are also through to the FA Cup quarter-finals as well as vying for the Champions League place which remains O'Neill's primary target. "We can get beaten at Wembley and lose to Reading the following Sunday, but this is the sort of vision we had," he added. "We've been here three and a half seasons and I'd like this club to be involved in such matches in February or March in years to come.''
Ferguson and his team have been more frequent visitors to Wembley, this being the Scot's 27th final. Familiarity has scarcely curbed his enthusiasm. "You can't help but be excited coming to a final, but the only way to enjoy Wembley is by winning, and we've experienced both sides of it over the years," he said. "It's the ones you lose where you ask yourself, 'Did I pick the right team?'''
If he resists the temptation to rest Rooney ahead of England duty, United will possess an individual capable of unlocking a well-drilled, aerially powerful Villa rearguard with a flash of inspiration or raw power. O'Neill may look to his captain, Stiliyan Petrov, to prevent fellow Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov finding the space to feed Rooney.
Villa will seek to exploit the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young, whose counter-attacking threat will lead Ferguson to start with the fit-again Nemanja Vidic.
The rival managers have a strong mutual respect and enjoy, as Ferguson put it, "a cup of tea or a glass of wine" after a match. Something rather fizzier awaits tomorrow's victors. But while the importance of winning a trophy, even a so-called non-trophy, cannot be under-estimated, the relentless nature of the modern game means the result will be equally significant for both clubs in terms of the impetus it could provide for the remainder of the season.
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