Ferguson matches old with new
MANCHESTER United will trust in personnel from opposite ends of the experience spectrum tonight when they step into a potentially combustible Carling Cup tie against Leeds at Elland Road, with 18-year-old Paul Pogba expected to make his debut in a side also likely to include Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs.
Pogba, a French midfielder of Guinean descent, was signed from Le Havre two years ago, since when his blend of power and poise has prompted comparisons with Patrick Vieira. After a series of stunning goals for the academy and reserve teams, plus an outing in Paul Scholes' testimonial match in August, he will be thrown into the fray by Sir Alex Ferguson as a makeshift United line-up strives to avoid what Leeds manager Simon Grayson has styled "the double" over their Roses rivals.
Leeds achieved their 1-0 win at Old Trafford in the FA Cup in January 2010 as a League One outfit. Today they stand 11th in the Championship, but the Premier League leaders' arduous schedule has persuaded Ferguson to confront them again with a combination of young prospects and senior pros on the fringes of his first team.
Revealing his intention to blood Pogba on the stage where compatriot Eric Cantona attained cult status before defecting across the Pennines, Ferguson ruled out the possibility of the Parisian leaving on loan. "It's more difficult to loan out a boy of 18 who has come from France," he said. "We prefer to keep him with us until we find he's mature enough to go on loan, though that could be an option next year."
Stockport-born twins Will and Michael Keane join Pogba in United's provisional 21-man squad, their surname alone guaranteed to provoke the Yorkshire crowd's disdain. As keen as he will be to avenge the FA Cup loss, Ferguson also views the tie as an opportunity to rest Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Nani, Anderson and David de Gea with Saturday's visit to Stoke in mind, and to give Owen, Giggs, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Dimitar Berbatov an outing.
Grayson, who was at Old Trafford to watch the champions defeat Chelsea 3-1 on Sunday, must also balance his desire to reach the fourth round against the need to preserve Leeds' competitive edge ahead of Friday's Championship match at Brighton. "That game takes priority because it's our bread and butter, but there's no getting away from the fact that Manchester United is massive for the club and our supporters," he said.
Recalling the "fantastic day" when Jermaine Beckford hit the winner at United, Grayson warned this would be "a tougher test". He added: "The all-round quality and strength in depth they have is probably the strongest it's been for some time. When you look at the players who haven't played much this season, it shows how strong they are. If it's a team that is totally different to the Chelsea game, it will still be one that would do well in the Premier League. People say it was their reserve team at Benfica, yet that side would be in the top six or seven of the Premier League.
"I think it hurt them when we won there. Sir Alex doesn't like losing anything; football, racing or whatever. He'll send out a team determined to beat us. He was gracious in defeat in the FA Cup and very complimentary. It was clear he was gutted and devastated at losing but he was very good. He also gave me a few tips on what we needed to do to get promoted, which will remain between me and him. Revenge is too strong a word but he'll be looking to win."
After finishing seventh on their return to the second tier, Leeds were quiet almost to the point of inactivity during the transfer window, prompting protests against the chairmanship of Ken Bates. Fans were further dismayed by the sale of Max Gradel, though Grayson has since added to his options by recruiting two Finnish free agents, striker Mikael Forssell and midfielder Mika Vayrynen, while striker Luciano Becchio has proved his fitness after knee surgery and may make his first start alongside the Championship's joint-top scorer Ross McCormack.