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Sizing up La Liga title contenders

La Liga
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By ESPN Staff

United turn to fringe players for FA Cup clash

Manchester United's fringe players step out of the shadows at Reading tomorrow bearing total trust in their ability to steer the Red Devils into the FA Cup quarter-finals.

After slogging their way through narrow wins against Lille and Fulham over the last week to keep alive their hopes of glory on the Champions League and Premiership fronts, Sir Alex Ferguson is intent on giving some of his senior men a rest ahead of the next huge challenge at Liverpool on Saturday.

It means the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Edwin van der Sar and Henrik Larsson are all set to miss a tough-looking fifth-round replay against Reading at the Madejski Stadium, when victory will earn a last eight trip to either Middlesbrough or West Brom.

But Red Devils' assistant manager Carlos Queiroz rejects outright the theory his side's line-up will suggest they are not interested in making it through.

Instead, he believes there will be sufficient talent within the visitors' party to record only their second win in four meetings with the Royals this term.

'We trust the players,' he said. 'We know they can deliver. We don't have to make changes but we need to do it because we have to ensure the team is as well prepared as possible for each individual game.

'As we approach this game, we have one thought in our minds; to make sure we travel back home knowing we are still in the FA Cup.'

It remains to be seen whether skipper Gary Neville will play any part having sat out the weekend win over Fulham, with Ferguson apparently omitting the England star in order to ensure United were fully able to counter the Cottagers' aerial threat.

The alternative suggestion is that Ferguson was still annoyed at Neville for trying to act as peacemaker amid the furore that accompanied Giggs' controversial match-winner in Lille, when the United boss felt his team should have ignored the protests and pushed forward looking for a killer second goal.

Nemanja Vidic seems certain to miss out, though, so Mikael Silvestre is in line for a rare start, while Alan Smith could be on the bench - his first senior appearance since the Carling Cup defeat at Southend in October.

With so many big games lying ahead over the next two months, it would be understandable if United struggled to adhere to the consistent `one game at a time' theme which has been coming out of Old Trafford.

Yet Queiroz believes it is vital to remain totally focussed on the immediate objective, if only to make each task a little easier.

'If we start play against Reading with Liverpool and Chelsea on our minds, it will create a big weight for us to carry,' he said.

'Suddenly, you might see 25 players in front of you. You might see a midfield where Steve Sidwell is playing with Steven Gerrard. The players cannot afford to let that happen. They must create a blank wall in their minds and remain focussed on Reading and nothing else.'

Amid the criticism that followed United's Premiership draw at Reading in September, Queiroz took a step back and declared the time to judge whether it was a bad result or not would be at the end of the season.

The former Real Madrid coach admitted he felt Reading would prosper and is one of few observers not to be taken aback by the rapid rise of Steve Coppell's men.

'We play a lot of games against a lot of different teams,' he said.

'Quite often, they do something special in one moment, or in one situation. On that night, Reading did it for 90 minutes. In every area of the pitch, their players knew what to do and how to do it.

'The quality of that performance was not something that just drops out of the sky. It only happens when you have good players, a good manager and a well-prepared team.

'During that game, I had a feeling Reading had something special.'