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Fringe players help Ferguson focus on the bigger challenges ahead


Alex Ferguson. Photo: PA

Alex Ferguson. Photo: PA

Alex Ferguson. Photo: PA

So how did Manchester United's leading players spend Saturday preparing for the biggest game of the club's season against Chelsea tomorrow evening?

Ryan Giggs signed a few autographs in the directors' box, Rio Ferdinand risked a thumb injury by spending his afternoon on Twitter, while Wayne Rooney, starting a two-game domestic suspension for swearing, walked past the Old Trafford press room, pushing his one year-old son Kai in a pram.

And just for good measure, Edwin van der Sar, Michael Carrick and Javier Hernandez were assigned to light duties on the substitutes' bench as Alex Ferguson turned to United's fringe players to fill the gaps against a Fulham team who ultimately fell to their traditional defeat at Old Trafford.

Ferguson complained after the game that too many supporters were "sunbathing and saving their voices for Tuesday night" after seeing his team -- inspired by the creativity of Nani and perpetual motion of Antonio Valencia -- saunter to a victory which leaves United requiring five more wins to secure the title. Yet the supporters were not the only ones with bigger things on their minds.

Ferguson's team selection betrayed his own determination to focus on Chelsea's visit in the Champions League quarter-final second-leg, and the not-insignificant matter of an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City at Wembley on Saturday.

Fulham were merely playing the role of patsy, a no-hope challenger that could offer little more than a gentle workout for United ahead of much greater, and more rewarding, challenges. "If Fulham had scored, we would have been capable of taking it up a gear or two," insisted United defender John O'Shea. "But thankfully we were able to keep a clean sheet. It's a special week for us, but that's what being part of Manchester United is all about. They're dream games (against Chelsea and City) and we want to come out on top."

Ferguson made eight changes from the side which defeated Chelsea 1-0 in last Wednesday's first-leg at Stamford Bridge, asking only on captain Nemanja Vidic, Valencia and Patrice Evra to do a double shift.

The rotation ensured a return to the starting XI for Nani, as well as handing Dimitar Berbatov only his third start in 12 games. The Bulgarian may be the Premier League's leading goalscorer with 21 goals, but his stats are counting for nothing when it comes to Ferguson's team selection.

Both Nani and Berbatov were key figures in the victory against Mark Hughes's team, however.

After surviving three near misses by Fulham inside the opening 10 minutes, United took charge of the game when Berbatov opened the scoring on 12 minutes.

Having played a one-two with Anderson, Nani threaded the ball through to Berbatov, who scored with a curling shot beyond the reach of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.

Twenty minutes later, Nani proved creator again when he teed up Valencia's header for the second goal after sprinting down the left before crossing for the Ecuadorean.

It was Nani's 18th league assist of the season, but despite this and his nine league goals too, he failed to make shortlist for PFA Footballer of the Year. His nomination for the Young Player award has done little to make up for his senior snub.

"I think I have done well, but there is still a lot of work to do and I will focus on my improvement every season," said Nani.

Fulham manager Hughes is backing United to emerge victorious against both Chelsea and City this week.

"You sense there is a real drive within United to win every game between now and the end of the season," Hughes said.

"When United teams have that mindset, it's very difficult to overcome them." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent