Ronaldo to step up comeback in Carling Cup
Mike Phelan believes tonight's Carling Cup tie with Middlesbrough offers Cristiano Ronaldo the perfect opportunity to ease his way back into Manchester United's first-team.
Ronaldo has been named in the starting line-up for the Old Trafford encounter as United look to atone for their embarrassing first hurdle exit in the competition last term.
While the Portugal winger has come on as substitute against Villarreal and, 48 hours ago, in the battling draw at Chelsea, Sir Alex Ferguson knows Ronaldo cannot reach the level he needs to be an effective force in the Premier League without further match sharpness.
So Middlesbrough, who have had plenty of run-ins with the 23-year-old before, are inadvertently cast in the role of experimental guinea pigs.
"Cristiano is maybe a couple of weeks behind everybody else but his progression has been fantastic,'' said Phelan, who was confirmed as Ferguson's full-time assistant a fortnight ago.
"The work he has put into his recovery and training has been first class and he has been introduced into games for 15 or 20 minutes at a time.
"He knows he still needs a few more minutes to get to the level he wants to be at. Tonight is a great opportunity to do that, which is why his name is in the squad.''
Ferguson will have a few more genuine first-teamers than usual in his side, with Anderson and Nani also needing games. England duo Gary Neville and Owen Hargreaves might be involved as well, although there is confusion over the availability of striker Manucho, who was due to make his debut.
In his programme notes, which were written last week, Sir Alex Ferguson suggested the Angolan would miss out due to a foot injury.
However, Ferguson's assistant Mike Phelan yesterday claimed Manucho would be in a 20-man squad for the cup tie.
There will also be the usual scattering of youngsters, although young Brazilian Fabio Da Silva misses out, having been forced to undergo a shoulder operation.
England Under-19 international Danny Welbeck is also expected to be handed at least a place on the bench, with Phelan admitting the younger members of Ferguson's squad must not spurn their chance.
"Looking back 12 months to the defeat against Coventry, we were disappointed with that and we do not want to go out so early again,'' he said.
"This is a rare opportunity and in some cases it is a great opportunity. It can launch your career.
"Some of these younger players have been here a while and some might not even have played at Old Trafford. That in itself is an experience.''
Ferguson must try and strike the right balance between offering the experienced players in his squad some valuable time on the pitch, whilst ensuring as many youngsters as possible gain experience of life on the big stage.
"We have a squad of 20 players and the young ones in it are now hoping to be in the starting line-up,'' observed Phelan.
"I am sure the ones who get into the team will perform. It is what they have worked so hard to get to. They need to produce because this is a critical point of their careers.''