Whether the postponement of Wednesday night’s Carling Cup semi-final will have any effect on Manchester United remains to be seen, but after the defeat against Leeds and the stinging comments made by Sir Alex Ferguson in its aftermath, it may have been the ideal tonic to have a match in such quick succession – what better way to get back on track than a win against their local rivals. However, United now have had an extra couple of days to recover for the trip to Birmingham on Saturday and have gained some additional hours on the training ground to banish the shocking performance from their system.
One of the talking points leading up to the cancelled semi-final was the line up that Sir Alex Ferguson would opt for, following his post-match comments at Old Trafford that suggested that some of the defeated starting XI would face the axe. Many felt that the changes would come across the back-four and midfield with the first choice names coming back in. However, following another muted performance by Dimitar Berbatov, it would have been interesting to see if he would have kept his place alongside the dazzling Wayne Rooney.
The Bulgarian could still face the axe this weekend as Ferguson will undoubtedly recall the age-defying Ryan Giggs and could switch to the formation which served admirably in the latter stages of November, with Giggs, Rooney and Antonio Valencia making up a front three. Ferguson has been able to rely on the aforementioned threesome much more than Berbatov and will undoubtedly get the required work rate which will be needed to combat an in form and well organised Birmingham side.
The defeat to Leeds would have surely disappointed Gary Neville who adorns the United badge so close to his heart. The former England right-back has featured in some momentous matches against Leeds in his illustrious career and knows exactly what the rivalry between the two teams mean, despite being situated two leagues apart. The fact that he was part of such a lacklustre side will have been extremely painful for the man who came through the Red Devil’s youth ranks. According to some newspaper reports, Neville seems likely to retire this summer after failing to regain full fitness following a series of injuries. Along with Giggs and Paul Scholes, Neville is one of the last survivors of the superb youth system that rose to stardom in the mid-nineties, firmly establishing themselves in the great treble season of 1999. However, his influence in recent years has certainly diminished and he has been overshadowed by the enduring high standards of the evergreen Giggs. He has never fully recovered from the injury suffered during a challenge by Gary Speed at Old Trafford in 2007 and has consistently struggled with persistent niggles. Thus he is rarely a feature in the United first team although he is still officially the club captain.
John O’Shea and Wes Brown are certainly ahead of Neville when everyone is fit and Rafael da Silva, the young Brazilian, also seems to be ahead of the former England man. The United captain returned for the Leeds encounter after a four-week lay-off following the injury sustained at Upton Park. In the two games prior to this match, away at Portsmouth and at home to Spurs in the Carling Cup, he had put in two clinical performances and looked to be hitting a run of form. Neville seems to have finally lost his battle to prove he is worth another year’s salary. He not only has to battle against younger, fitter challengers for his position but also against himself to maintain a consistent level of fitness – a challenge that Neville’s heart will say is viable, but his legs and head will suggest otherwise.
United have shown loyalty in the past to thirty-something players and those who have struggled with injuries. Neville will gain encouragement from the pay-as-you-play deal offered to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer while still struggling with an injury which would sadly end his career and the recent deal to nab Michael Owen on a free. Paul Scholes has also consistently earned a new deal even through indifferent bouts of form.
Hated by opposition fans up and down the country but loved by the United faithful as one of their own, all supporters connected with the club will be hoping that the player that lies fifth in United’s all-time appearance list will be shown the kind of loyalty that he has always shown for his club. For Neville, the immediate aim must be to gain some playing time and try to convince himself, as well as Sir Alex, that he is still hip enough to party with the elite.