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Saturday, Feb. 28, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Man United poised to add to trophy case


LONDON — Manchester United goes in search of the second leg of its bid to win the Quintuple on Sunday when it plays Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup final.

Christopher Davies

Logic and form dictates United will win. It has by far the stronger team and squad. The players are in form, concede goals as often as Halley's Comet makes an appearance, and while a Famous Five haul of trophies this season seems unlikely, the Reds should be toasting a Double after the Wembley final.

Sir Alex Ferguson plans to field a mix-and-match side of experience and youth, but Wayne Rooney said: "All the players want to play. It's down to the manager how he thinks the squad should be used."

United will be fresher having played Inter Milan in the Champions League Tuesday. In contrast, Spurs were unsuccessful in trying to pull back a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Shakhtar Donetsk in the UEFA Cup on Thursday, a competition manager Harry Redknapp seems to rate alongside root canal treatment.

Of the fixture congestion Redknapp seemed stuck in a 1960s time warp when he said: "You used to go up to Blackpool before a final, have a jog on the beach or a stroll on the promenade. That's what we used to do in the good old days.

"To play on Thursday is very difficult, but we wouldn't swap a cup final for anything. If you're in the UEFA Cup and going fine in the league, you can have a go at both. But I still find myself in a relegation battle and the fixtures have piled up. We want to stay in the Premier League and you have to have priorities."

Recent signings Carlo Cudicini, Pascal Chimbonda, Wilson Palacios, Robbie Keane and Frazier Campbell are ineligible. Redknapp's biggest selection is whether Michael Dawson or Ledley King will partner Jonathan Woodgate in the center of defense.

King played on Monday at Hull in a league game and his dodgy knees mean he usually cannot play twice within seven days. He has been rested for the past six weeks and could be risked for the biggest game of the season, though Dawson, arguably Spurs' best player this season, didn't figure against Hull or Shakhtar.

The Club World Cup is already safely in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet.

The League Cup and Premier League title should follow. The F.A. Cup depends much on Ferguson's selection policy, not least with a possible quarterfinal replay against Fulham.

The biggest hurdle is the Champions League because of the sheer quality of the teams involved, but in the current form it would be foolish to write United off for anything.

* * * * *

JOSE MOURINHO reacted to Inter Milan's failure to beat Manchester United at San Siro in exactly the manner most football observers expected: blaming the referee.

Oh how we have missed Moaninho's whingeing, buck-passing, bad sportsmanship and boorish behavior.

Not.

An undoubtedly talented and successful coach, Mourinho is graceless and looks for a suitable target for his venom when things go wrong. His accusations over the years have proved to be based on little more than paranoia, from alleging Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard visited the dressing room of referee Anders Frisk at Nou Camp to pointing the figure at the Berkshire Ambulance Service for being late when Petr Cech was injured (they weren't).

Mourinho even flouted the British anti-rabies laws with his dog and accepted a police caution — an admission of guilt.

Neutrals believed Luis Medina Cantalejo refereed the game between Inter and United strongly, not falling for diving (excuse the pun) or the usual player histrionics. Predictably, Mourinho accused the Spanish official of bias against Inter, an allegation that sadly did not bring a UEFA sanction.

Inter was outplayed by a rampant United in the 0-0 draw on Tuesday but there is a horrible suspicion that the European champion's missed chances could come back to haunt it at Old Trafford.

There are many in England who would love to see Mourinho return to the Premier League. They are mainly fans of unsuccessful clubs and journalists who appreciate the Portuguese headline value.

Yes, Mourinho delivers silverware and great copy. But at a price. He brings too much negative baggage, and those who place Fair Play high on their list of priorities will hope the Special One is the Special None after the game against United at Old Trafford.

* * * * *

HALFTIME SCORE in the Champions League first knockout stage: England 3 1/2, Italy/Spain 1/2.

Arsenal beat Roma, Chelsea beat Juventus, Liverpool beat Real Madrid and Manchester United drew with Inter Milan.

The first legs of European football's sudden death stage went well for the cream of the Premier League — whatever the outcomes of the return games, the good news for the other four remaining sides is that four potential finalists will go out of the competition.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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