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Alex fumes as Ferdinand is charged ahead of semi tie

Alex Ferguson has been plunged into a huge dilemma before Manchester United's potentially explosive Carling Cup showdown with Manchester City at Old Trafford this evening.

The United manager was furious after the FA charged Rio Ferdinand with violent conduct yesterday.

The centre-half will get an automatic three-match ban, ruling him out of the second leg of the semi-final, if he pleads guilty by 6pm.

However, if Ferdinand contests the charge, he runs the risk of a longer ban if it is decided the appeal is frivolous, or that United deliberately took that option to allow Ferdinand to play against City.

The charge relates to an incident during United's 4-0 Premier League win at home to Hull City on Saturday, when Ferdinand -- in his first match after three months out because of a back injury -- appeared to strike Craig Fagan in the face with an arm.

The incident was missed by Steve Bennett, the referee, but after reviewing footage the official said he would have taken action had he seen it.

Ferguson is incensed about the timing of the charge and believes it would not have been unreasonable for the governing body to delay it by 24 hours, rather than complicate United's preparations for one of the biggest games of the season.

If Ferdinand pleads guilty he will miss tonight's match, the Premier League game away to Arsenal on Sunday and the one against Portsmouth at Old Trafford six days later.

If an appeal tomorrow is unsuccessful, however, Ferdinand -- who was described by Ferguson yesterday as "key to our progress" -- would, in addition to the Arsenal and Portsmouth fixtures, be unavailable for the league match away to Villa on February 10 and possibly the game against Everton at Goodison 10 days later, should his ban be increased.

In Ferdinand's expected absence, Wes Brown and Jonny Evans are likely to be given the task of keeping under wraps Carlos Tevez, City's former United striker.

The behaviour of Tevez and Gary Neville will be under particular scrutiny tonight, with the FA threatening action against the players and their clubs if they step out of line after a tempestuous first leg.

Neville and Tevez exchanged gestures during a pitch-side confrontation, with the Argentinian later branding his former team-mate "a boot-licker" and a "moron" after taking exception to Neville's suggestion that United were right not to sign him permanently last summer.