The last time that Manchester United and Aston Villa faced each other in the final of the League Cup was 16 years ago and came in the midst of a season where United were eventually crowned Premier League and FA Cup winners. The abiding memory of that encounter was of missed chances for United with their green and gold clad players cutting frustrated figures. United were, however, able to put the disappointment of that fixture behind them and used the defeat as a springboard to propel them towards eventual Wembley success in the FA Cup final against Chelsea, coupled with the Premier League title.
United fielded a full-strength side in the final of 1994 much as they are expected to do on Sunday. Indeed, the only absentee for the Red Devils on that day was their influential goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel who was missing due to suspension. Schmeichel was replaced by European Cup Winners’ Cup hero Les Sealey. Many feel the lack of success in that particular final was down to the loss of Schmeichel as his presence at the back was integral to United’s dominance in the 1990s. The team was obviously packed with quality in doing enough to be in contention for all three domestic trophies, but when Villa put United under pressure on the counter-attack the influence of Schmeichel with the unbeatable nature of the Dane was missing from United’s back line. This is, of course, in no disrespect to the late Sealey who will always be a United hero, but when compared with the other cup final that year Schmeichel was able to contain Chelsea in a first half in which they were totally dominant, whereas in the League Cup Villa were able to take the lead when they had spells where they were in command of the game.
This current season for United is developing in much the same way as that of 1994, with the team on the cusp of greatness but lingering in the background is the possibility that it could all go wrong at the final hurdle of competitions, with this Sunday the first opportunity to allay that fear. It has also been a season where United have been stripped of one of their most influential players for another cup final, this time due to injury rather than suspension.
Rio Ferdinand has been integral to this United side over the last three championship winning seasons and his partnership with Nemanja Vidic has been the backbone of the side, enabling the more creative players to have licence to express themselves. Ferdinand has only started three fixtures in the last four months and has again suffered a problem with his back which has ruled him out of this particular Wembley appearance. The newly appointed England captain has been troubled over the past 15 months with a long-standing back injury, and although this latest strain is said to be unconnected with that recurring problem, it is difficult to see a prolonged involvement for him for the rest of the season. At the age of 31, Ferdinand is entering a stage of his career where he needs consistent playing time as his body will be becoming less adept at shaking off pulls and strains. An entirely different player to Schmeichel, however, the influence of Ferdinand is up there for this side alongside that of the Dane in the 1990s – it is certainly a worry that when the big games come a United side without Ferdinand may be susceptible to that one mistake in a crucial period of the game which may cost them dear.
The team on that fateful day in 1994 was decked out in green and gold – the second choice away kit for that particular season was in the style of the kit worn by Manchester United in their original incantation of Newton Heath. This Sunday’s Wembley encounter is likely to be awash with the same colours. The green and gold scarves worn by the United supporters to show their lack of support for the club’s current owners and financial difficulties thereof have been a consistent fixture around Old Trafford since the early part of the year. Support for this campaign has grown so much in recent weeks that when showing sections of the Old Trafford crowd on television green and gold has taken over red as the predominant colour worn by the United supporters. This Wembley final will provide the United fans with the ideal showcase for this campaign and it is expected that the United faithful will again adorn themselves in these colours, using the final as a springboard to launch more campaigns against the club ownership, much as they used the FA Cup final in 2005 to launch the Love United Hate Glazer campaign when the ownership of the club first changed.
Despite goings on off the pitch, the United team must focus on the task in hand going one better than that team of 1994 in putting Villa to the sword and claiming the first trophy of the season – using the Wembley encounter as their own springboard to again push themselves to further success over Chelsea as in 1994.
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