Manchester United are set to rest some of their key men against Derby County on Thursday, meaning the FA Cup fifth-round tie might represent a last chance for several fringe players to convince Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that they deserve to stay at Old Trafford beyond the summer.
After Sunday’s draw at Everton, United are three points off fourth place in the Premier League. While Manchester City have been banned from competing in European competition for two years, there is no guarantee Uefa’s ruling will be upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
The ban could even be overturned completely, meaning United must aim to finish fourth rather than hope that fifth place will be enough to secure Champions League football.
Of course, there is a second possible route of qualification, given United are among the favourites to win the Europa League, but nothing can be taken for granted given the likes of Sevilla, Roma and Inter also remain in contention.
In that context, the Premier League remains Solskjaer’s best hope, so the FA Cup should be treated as an inconvenience. The best players must be protected, all the way through to the final should it come to that.
That means that Solskjaer must use some of his reserves at Pride Park, even if he has already made it abundantly clear that some of them do not feature in his long-term plans.
But even if United were taking the FA Cup seriously, a trip to face 13th-placed Derby County would still represent an ideal opportunity to give more game time to the club’s youngsters.
With Paul Pogba likely to leave at the end of the season, James Garner might be given a rare chance to demonstrate his ability. Certainly, it would help persuade the talented midfielder that he has a future at Old Trafford.
Angel Gomes is also likely to feature at Derby but he may have already decided to depart in search of regular first-team football.
The winger has shown his technical ability in his rare appearances this season and will probably view Thursday as a chance to attract the attention of even more clubs to his services, given his contract expires this summer and he has already been linked with Chelsea and Barcelona.
Another winger with time on his side but not on his contract is Tahith Chong.
He has been regularly linked with a free transfer to Juventus, which would earn him a hefty signing-on fee, and he has occasionally featured for United in this campaign.
Unlike the diminutive Gomes, he already has the physique of a modern footballer, with the added bonus of a dangerous pace. However, also unlike Gomes, he has thus far exhibited little nous in his game, which is why United might not be too upset to see Chong leave for Turin.