Manchester United are set to break Liverpool’s record and seal their 19th League title if they gain a point or more against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park on Saturday afternoon. Therefore, United’s final match of the season against Blackpool could prove to be a worthless game. With the Champions League Final set to take place against Barcelona at Wembley on six days later, don’t be surprised if Sir Alex Ferguson fields a weakened team at Old Trafford as he looks to preserve key players for one of the most important games of the season.
However, the final game is far more important to Blackpool and their rivals as they look to preserve their Premiership status. In what is proving to be a close relegation battle, surely the likes of Wigan, West Ham and Wolves would have serious cause for complaint if Manchester United were to field a reserve side and Blackpool won and prevented relegation?
This is not the first time Ferguson has been in such a situation. In 2008/09, United fielded a weakened side against Hull but still managed to win. Of greater notoriety was the final day of the 2006/07 season when West Ham defeated United at Old Trafford and saved their Premier League status at the expense of Sheffield United. A hot-headed manager at the best of times, then-Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock was furious at Ferguson’s selection that effectively consigned The Blades to relegation and refused to accept the latter’s apology.
But squad rotation has become increasingly common in the Premier League as teams look to prioritise European and cup competitions over domestic games. With teams boasting increasingly large squads designed to cope with more congested fixture schedules, surely it is up to managers to select appropriate teams that are capable of winning titles yet durable enough to survive up to and sometimes over fifty games in a season. Teams rest key players and ultimately sacrifice points throughout the season. It is just unfortunate that this example comes at such a crucial stage for the teams faced with possible relegation.
The Premier League has in place rules designed to protect the integrity of the fixtures. Blackpool themselves have already been fined £25,000 for fielding a weakened team and action would surely be taken if Ferguson was deemed to have selected a second string XI.
But, what if the final game came around and, say, Edwin van de Sar collided with Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney pulled up lame with a hamstring injury? If United lost three crucial players before probably the most important game of the season in an otherwise meaningless game, Ferguson would never hear the end of it. Both fans and pundits would criticise his selection and he then would not be able to field a full-strength team in the Champions League final. Therefore, when put into context, if United faced a fine of a similar amount to that received by Blackpool then surely it would be a small price to pay for protecting their chances of European success. Yes, it could have a direct effect on the other relegation candidates, but at the end of the day teams don’t play football for the benefit of other teams; they play to win themselves and should do whatever is necessary to succeed.
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