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Suddenly It's A Big Game

Suddenly It's A Big Game

With United's interest in Europe now at an end, Sir Alex Ferguson has pledged to field a largely strong side, laced with promising youngsters such as Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique.

However, even if the Red Devils do advance to the last four, Howard knows the immediate focus around Old Trafford is to try and find some way of clawing back Chelsea's massive nine-point lead.

Now six points clear in second spot, if anyone is going to deny Jose Mourinho's men back-to-back titles it is United. And Howard is hoping the packed Christmas programme is where Chelsea finally start to unravel.

'For some teams, having so many fixtures at one time is a good thing, for others it is bad,' he said.

'We look at the situation positively because we have been in good form and have created lots of chances.

'It is difficult being at the top, so we have to try to put some pressure on Chelsea.

'We are hoping they slip up somewhere along the line and, if they do, our objective is to be right there on their heels.'

Ferguson will check on the fitness of Louis Saha and Alan Smith before finalising his squad for Tuesday's Carling Cup quarter-final at Birmingham.

Both men missed the weekend win over Aston Villa after picking up a virus and, with a busy Christmas programme looming, Ferguson will want to be sure the duo are 100% fit before he selects them again.

Although the Red Devils are now out of Europe, Ferguson still intends to select a young squad, with Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique among those attempting to guide United into the last four for the second successive season.

Emile Heskey is poised to return to the Birmingham starting line-up for the Carling Cup quarter-final clash with Manchester United.

Heskey was absent from Saturday's 4-1 debacle at Manchester City because his partner was due to give birth - even though he was named among the substitutes in the hope he would return to Eastlands in time.

Maik Taylor will replace Nico Vaesen after the keeper was sent off in the closing stages and Colin Doyle has been recalled from a loan spell at Millwall to act as back-up.

Martin Taylor is pushing strongly for a recall at the expense of right-back Olivier Tebily, who was substituted to save him further embarrassment against Stuart Pearce's team.

BIRMINGHAM (from): Maik Taylor, Doyle, Martin Taylor, Tebily, Cunningham, Upson, Painter, Clapham, Johnson, Clemence, Butt, Dunn, Heskey, Pandiani, Forssell, Pennant, Jarosik.

MAN UTD (from): Howard, Steele, Neville, Bardsley, Eckersley, Brown, Pique, O'Shea, Richardson, Ronaldo, Fletcher, Martin, Smith, Park, Jones, Rossi, Saha, Ebanks-Blake, Rooney.

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Date:Tuesday December 20 2005
Time: 1:21PM

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