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Apr 20, 2009

Fergie joins Wenger in Wembley condemnation

Sir Alex Ferguson has joined forces with Arsenal's Arsene Wenger in condemning the Wembley pitch, after the Frenchman described the surface as a "joke" after seeing it cut up as Arsenal lost 2-1 to Chelsea in their FA Cup semi-final on Saturday.

• FA concede need for pitch improvements

Ferguson's actions were even more embarrassing for the Football Association as he revealed he had pulled established stars such as Paul Scholes, Dimitar Berbatov and Patrice Evra out of the starting line-up for yesterday's FA Cup semi-final defeat against Everton because of the state of what should be English football's premier playing surface.

Ferguson played a makeshift team of youngsters and reserves, who battled to a goalless draw after extra-time before losing agonisingly 4-2 in a penalty shootout.

The United manager said: "When I saw the pitch (in the Chelsea v Arsenal semi), what I didn't want was to go into extra-time with my strongest squad.

"It looked spongy and dead and difficult to move the ball quickly around it. They've got all these lights around the perimeter to help the growth and the standard of the soil. But it looks dead to me.

"So we had to go with the bold decision of playing the younger ones. After all, our club is built on giving young players opportunities and they didn't disappoint.

"Once we made our mind up, I was quite enthusiastic about it. It was the right thing to do. It was good for them."

Ferguson now has to pick up his team for a crucial league match against Portsmouth on Wednesday when Darren Fletcher will be available after injury and the big guns will return, including Wayne Rooney.

Ferguson, however, insists the experience of Wembley, where he made eight changes - including adding three teenagers - to the team that beat Porto in the Champions League last Wednesday, has convinced him United have a strong enough squad to succeed in their quests for the Premier League and Champions League trophies.

He said: "The most important thing is that I now know that, in the run-in, those young players of mine can play in any game, ability-wise.

"(Danny) Welbeck and (Federico) Macheda were absolutely outstanding and that is a big plus point. We have some massive games coming up now and we have the squad to cope with it."

The semi-final hinged on a 69th-minute decision by referee Mike Riley when he denied United a penalty after Phil Jagielka appeared to bring down Welbeck in the penalty area.

Ferguson suggested doubts might have been planted in Riley's mind by claims last week he was a United supporter, claims Everton manager David Moyes declined to deny.

"I've no idea if it affected the decision but you never know," said Ferguson. "It may have. It can prey on a referee's mind. I've seen the video and it looks a penalty kick but, in the importance of the game, the referee probably has to be dead sure.

"When he (Riley) sees it he'll probably realise he's made a mistake but I can't say that's the reason for us losing."

Ferguson, who saw Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand have their spot-kicks saved by former United goalkeeper Tim Howard, also claimed he never believed winning five trophies this season was realistic.

"It's impossible to think you can do that," he said. "You need a lot of luck. We've had a lot of injuries to defenders.

"If all my players had been fit, you would have to go for it but, realistically, it is very, very difficult."

  • FA concede need for pitch improvements

    The FA have confirmed the state of the pitch is a concern and said they are focusing on improving it for the numerous fixtures in the next two months.

    ''Whilst recent changes to the surface have seen improvements in player traction, we accept there are still further improvements to be made,'' a statement from the governing body read.

    ''Wembley Stadium will continue to work hard to address these issues for our next matches.

    ''The grounds team has made continual improvements to the pitch since opening in 2007, however, the stadium's unique environment continues to prove challenging.''

    Before the end of the season, the turf will have to withstand three Football League play-off finals plus the Blue Square Premier play-off final, the FA Cup final and the finals of the FA Trophy and Vase. England then play a World Cup qualifier against Andorra on June 10.

    Aside from football, there is an AC/DC concert on June 26 and, in July, three Oasis dates and four Take That concerts.

    It will be re-laid again for the Community Shield in August and the FA's statement added that ''this new pitch will be of a different composition and from a different turf nursery''.

    David Saltman, formerly in charge of Millennium Stadium pitch, said Wembley will never be as good as a Premier League club's surface.

    ''This pitch is the most spotlighted pitch in country if not the world,'' he told BBC Radio Five Live. ''The number of events on the grass and off it is staggering.

    ''One of the problems with Wembley and the Millennium is they're not just pitches for football.

    ''Managers such as Ferguson and Wenger are used to playing on pitches which are just prepared for football week in, week out and the levels are superb. The pitch is cut short and the players know what they are going to be going on to.

    ''At Wembley and the Millennium the pitches are turfed - they have to be because of the other events - so you're never going to have the same sort of perfect level you have with an in-situ pitch you get in the Premier League and the Championship.''

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