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Carling Cup triumph proves run out for Sir Alex Ferguson's young thoroughbreds

01 March 2009 10:39
There is a fair chance that some neutrals are coming to this understanding only now having reached for mother's little helper long before we got to penalties.

Like the Uefa Cup, a competition that has lost all value, the Carling Cup is not a trophy that generates the requisite intensity among elite clubs to make a showpiece sing. It is not that Manchester United did not want to win it, as such. No team of Sir Alex Ferguson's crosses the white line in retreat. It is that losing it would not have mattered that much.

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Rightly or wrongly the competition has become for United, and others, a creche for young lads and squad players propped up by an old head or two. Let's see if Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson start in Rome if United progress to the Champions League final.

The killer camera shot came not on the pitch but off it, picking out Wayne Rooney, a little under the weather apparently, and Darren Fletcher mucking about on the Wembley sidelines in suits. Says it all, really.

For the United fans there is an element of metal fatigue. The atmosphere was more Charity Shield than FA Cup with a sense of occasion restricted to the end colonised by Tottenham, whose supporters at least embraced the event with their flags and klaxons.

Even the shoot-out lacked drama courtesy of a fine save from Ben Foster, who enhanced his reputation over the piece by keeping out Tottenham's first penalty, taken perhaps surprisingly by substitute Jamie O'Hara. David Bentley killed what excitement remained when he failed to hit the target altogether.

Before the match Football League chairman Lord Mawhinney backed the policy of great footballing institutions such as United and Arsenal blooding tyros. "Stars of the future" he said. Mawhinney is right. There are few things in sport more thrilling than the breakthrough of the novice, particularly at a club like United, whose history is shot through with the deeds of babes. But authentication comes only by way of competition that has genuine significance.

By choosing to select teams from the fringe throughout, the message can be only that the tournament is not critical. Far better in a way had Burnley and Derby made it to Wembley. Then we would have had a final commensurate with the status of the participants and populated by players who wanted to be there.

Tottenham escape censure in this respect. Despite the obvious artistry of Luka Modric, the excellence of centre-backs Michael Dawson and Ledley King, and the effervescence of Aaron Lennon down the right, Spurs were ultimately not good enough to take the game away from United in demi mode.

The result keeps the five-pot narrative bobbing along nicely for at least a week until United meet Fulham in the quarter-final of the FA Cup. We recall how the world's oldest knockout competition suffered a blow to its esteem when United, hemmed in by Football Association politics, elected not to defend it in 2000. It has recovered some of that gloss but, one suspects, had Liverpool's Premier League challenge prevailed a little longer, then a defeat at Craven Cottage would not be sending Ferguson's players rushing to The Priory for therapy.

Harry Redknapp's disappointment will ease with a victory over Middlesbrough at White Hart Lane on Wednesday since Premier League football next year remains his priority. The Tottenham manager did not hold back here. He sent out his strongest team, had the game's outstanding outfield player in Modric, and from his febrile demeanor on the touchline, conveying instructions like a tic-tac man at the race course, wanted a keep the trophy at White Hart Lane.

The portents were good. Redknapp had the same room in the hotel he used last year with Portsmouth for the FA Cup final. He commissioned a Spurs greatest hits compilation to rouse the players before the game. The six-minute tape featured Tottenham legends down the ages doing wonderful things in the name of the cockerel.

Had Foster's arms and legs not grown a foot whenever danger threatened, Redknapp might have fashioned the victory he thought his team deserved. Foster's two reaction saves to keep out Lennon and Darren Bent had the watching England manager Fabio Capello making copious mental notes. If David James is telepathic he is in for an uncomfortable time. Foster had England's No 1 written all over him.

Edwin van der Saar, one of the suited bystanders, might have to bring forward his retirement plans. Though safe for now, next season is another matter. United head to Newcastle on Wednesday with Van der Sar restored to the sticks. Look out, too, for Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Carrick.

Apart from its statistical value as part of the fantastic five fable, this day will not feature greatly in the United archive. One to get out of the way early so the real business can resume. League title No 18 beckons and a fourth European Cup. Whither the Carling Cup in that company?

 

Source: Telegraph