Chelsea's FA Cup visit offers vital chance to regroup

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Manchester United must now turn their thoughts from hopes of a treble, which were admittedly always somewhat distant, to the small matter of an FA Cup tie against Chelsea.

Sunday's game, which will see the trophy holders visit Old Trafford, is an opportunity for Sir Alex Ferguson to renew hostilities with the Londoners' beleaguered manager, Rafa Benitez. Benitez, of course, is a man who has strongly challenged Manchester United's hegemony in the Premier League, defeating them twice in one season during the 2008-09 campaign with Liverpool and ending that year with the record number of points (86) by an EPL runner-up. Benitez would greet a loss Sunday to Ferguson with the same enthusiasm he reserves for the word "interim".

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For Ferguson, the game represents an opportunity to recapture the winning habit. He will know, too, that it does not take much for a season to assume a negative momentum. His team's demise at the hands of Real Madrid in the Champions League marked the end of an 18-match unbeaten run; losing to Chelsea would shake the club’s composure at a vital point of the season, and would provide them with a sizable psychological boost prior to their Premier League match at Old Trafford in May.

Though the FA Cup will not be Ferguson's priority, he understands the competition's value as a statement of intent. Chelsea are currently in transition, and few things would unite a fractious club better than a win against their recently battle-scarred rivals. Manchester City, of course, got a taste for glory by beating Manchester United on their way to the 2011 FA Cup, paving the way for their league triumph the following season. With Chelsea such redoubtable competitors in recent years, Ferguson will not want to give them any sort of optimism for future success.

He will also realise that there are several of his current squad who have not yet lifted a trophy for Manchester United, and a journey up the steps at Wembley could mark the christening of a new great team. The 2004 FA Cup final win over Millwall, for example, can be seen as the first rung on Cristiano Ronaldo’s ladder to greatness, as well as a moment when a talented young nucleus of players won something together. That form of bonding is invaluable, and Ferguson will want more of the same on Sunday and beyond.

Looking at the numbers, the odds are against Chelsea, who have not scored an FA Cup goal at Old Trafford since 1963. Fortunately, though, they can call on the excellent Juan Mata, who in almost any other season would be a front-runner for the Player of the Year awards. That he is not is testament to the outstanding seasons being enjoyed by Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale and Robin van Persie.

Van Persie’s form, in truth, has been somewhat less than stellar in recent weeks; though he has continued to create goals, he has found it rather harder to score them of late, netting only once in his last eight matches. He may need a rest to recover his touch and confidence, in which case Javier Hernandez would make for a fine deputy.

There is something attractive, too, about unleashing Nani in a match like this, given his very good performance prior to his unfortunate dismissal against Real Madrid. Nani, moreover, was the decisive influence in the previous round against Reading, and arguably merits inclusion on that fact alone. The FA Cup has been a platform on which he has starred in the past, and there is no reason why he should not do so again.

In a sense, Manchester United need this win even more than Chelsea. It is notable that, even with Champions League ties on the horizon, Ferguson named strong teams against relatively low-lying Premier League opponents. He was keen then to maintain the imposing buttress of a double-digit Premier League lead. If Chelsea corrode Manchester United’s confidence with a win Sunday, it will give Roberto Mancini’s men the scent of the chase, and no one at Old Trafford needs any reminding what happened the last time such a concession was made. On that basis, we can plausibly expect Ferguson to treat this game as one of a succession of title deciders in disguise.

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