Fielding a weakened lineup in an FA Cup semi-final proved a gamble too far on Sunday for Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.
With three Premier League and Champions League matches coming up in swift succession, Ferguson’s decision to rest top players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney ended with a defeat by Everton on penalties after a 0-0 draw at Wembley.
Ferguson said his decision to field four players who had not even started a Premier League match this season — strikers Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda, midfielder Darron Gibson and left back Fabio da Silva — was prompted by seeing the pitch cut up badly during Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Arsenal in Saturday’s semi-final.
“Yesterday it looked spongy and dead and difficult to move the ball about on it,” Ferguson said. “What I didn’t want was to go into extra time with my strongest squad. So we had to go with the bold decision of playing the younger ones.”
“This club is built on giving the young players opportunities and they didn’t disappoint,” he said.
Defender Rio Ferdinand, one of the few United stars to start, backed Ferguson’s decision, saying: “It’s not like we’re just fighting on one front — we’ve got different things to go for. You can’t use the same players every week. We’ve got a big squad and we’ve got to use it.”
Everton keeper Tim Howard, who saved two penalties in the 4-2 shootout win against his former club, said United’s team selection looked a shrewd move.
“I think Sir Alex Ferguson was clever,” said the American. “We were the underdogs, but all of a sudden at the stroke of a pen we become the favorites, which put more pressure on us.”
“But we don’t disrespect those players — you only have to look at the world-class players in the shootout,” he said.
That the match finished goalless after extra time was largely down to Ferguson retaining the first-choice central defensive partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Ferdinand to provide experience between the 18-year-old Da Silva twins, Rafael and Fabio.
“The young lads have proved themselves worthy players who can play for Man United and shine in the future,” Ferdinand said. “That is the only positive you can take out of a negative situation like today.”
It could have been a different situation had referee Mike Riley awarded a penalty when Welbeck appeared to be pushed to the ground by Everton’s Phil Jagielka.
“We don’t get many penalties these days,” Ferdinand said. “Referees are reluctant to give them to us. Maybe they are being put under pressure by people in the media but that is the way it goes.”
“We are not going to harp on about it because, in the end, we were not good enough in the penalty shootout. There was always going to come a day when you don’t have a good time in that situation and this was it,” he said.