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United revel in freedom

Ferguson questions why it takes FA Cup exit to prepare properly for Champions League clash with AC Milan

Alex Ferguson does not understand why it has taken Manchester United getting knocked out of the FA Cup to have a proper preparation for next week's Champions League encounter with AC Milan.

While Ryan Giggs' broken arm deprives Ferguson of a valuable option, the United boss can at least tailor the build-up to Tuesday's visit to the San Siro exactly as he wants.

Although Ferguson would have preferred his team not to lose to League One opposition on home soil last month, defeat by old rivals Leeds has provided an unexpected free weekend ahead of the reunion with David Beckham.

It is the kind of situation Ferguson feels United's continental counterparts find themselves in all the time, whereas English teams have to plough on through an arduous fixture list regardless.

Fortune

"In terms of preparing for a European tie we are pleased to have a free weekend," said Ferguson.

"AC Milan are playing on Friday night. That is the kind of help European teams get from their countries. We don't get that here.

"By fortune we don't have a game on Saturday because we are out of the FA Cup and we are going to take full advantage of it.

"The players will have a couple of days off because they have worked hard and we will start again on Saturday."

United have had their wings clipped further after Giggs was ruled out for up to four weeks with a fractured arm.

Collision

With Nani suspended for the Carling Cup final against Aston Villa, after his red card in Wednesday's Premier League draw with Martin O'Neill's team, Giggs will also miss out on the Wembley date on February 28 after X-rays yesterday confirmed Ferguson's worst fears.

Giggs injured his right arm in a collision with Steve Sidwell during the 1-1 draw at Villa Park.

At San Siro, when Beckham will hope to line up for the Italian side against his former club, at least Ferguson will be able to call upon Nani, whose three-match ban applies only to domestic games.

United pulled to within a point of Chelsea on Wednesday, after the league leaders' defeat to Everton, and Ferguson will be planning to recall Rio Ferdinand, suspended for four domestic matches, and Nemanja Vidic, after a nerve injury, for next week's return to European competition.

United announced that Giggs is to miss four weeks of action so there is a chance that he could return for Milan's visit to Old Trafford on March 10. While the 36-year-old no longer features in every game, his importance to Ferguson's team cannot be underestimated.

Refused

Ferguson is likely to respond to losing the two wide players by recalling Park Ji Sung to play on one flank with Antonio Valencia on the other. Nani will miss the league matches against Everton and West Ham United, a week tomorrow and Tuesday respectively, while, in addition, Giggs will not be ready for the trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers on March 6.

Wednesday's draw away to contenders for a Champions League place was a positive result for United, considering that they played for more than an hour with 10 men after Nani's dismissal.

But Edwin van der Sar refused to concede that the title is down to a two-horse race, after Arsenal recovered from successive maulings against United and Chelsea to beat Liverpool on Wednesday and stay within six points of the top.

"There is a little bit of a gap between us but Arsenal are still around," the goalkeeper said. "But really, we are not looking to anyone else. We will concentrate on ourselves."

Carlos Cuellar believes that Villa have nothing to fear before the Carling Cup final and that, with nine out of their final 13 league games to come against teams at present in the bottom half of the top flight, O'Neill's side can maintain their push for fourth place.

CONFIDENCE

"To get four points out of United this season gives us a lot of confidence," the defender said.

"We showed we can get points and win against the best team in this league. We have to try and keep the high standards against the small teams and to try and win against them."


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