European Football: United shrug off Moscow mishap: English representatives pay penalty for failing to assimilate Uefa rules: Derek Hodgson finds Alex Ferguson relieved to put his club's European foray behind him

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IT TOOK Manchester United more than two hours to clear passport controls at Sheremetyevo Airport in the early hours of yesterday morning. The citizens of shabby old Moscow are friendly enough but Russian officialdom remains implacable: if MCC ever run short of gatemen for Lord's they can always recruit a few Russian immigration officers.

Ken Merrett, United's secretary, had the misfortune to separate his visa, a sheet of grey paper with photo attached, from his passport. He was not allowed to leave. He had to return to the city and then, yesterday morning, attend the British Embassy for a new visa.

In all the circumstances, United's manager Alex Ferguson was remarkably sanguine. After all, United had been beaten 4-3 on penalties by Torpedo Moscow, bringing elimination from the Uefa Cup at a possible cost of pounds 1m in lost revenue; Mark Hughes had been sent off (and may miss the club's next two European matches); Danny Wallace had pulled a hamstring (three weeks) and Mike Phelan had a crushed cheekbone.

Ferguson first paid Torpedo a compliment: 'The best side we have played this season.' He acknowledged that a European defeat is nevertheless a costly blow to finance and prestige. 'Europe adds that little extra to a season and a run would have been great experience for our younger players,' he said. Then he added, almost sentimentally: 'Perhaps we have been chasing rainbows in Europe, this season and last.'

Ferguson was referring, indirectly, to the Uefa regulations that restrict the number of foreign players - which includes Welsh, Scots and Irish - a club can field in European competitions. Rangers had to unload Englishmen, Liverpool sold off Steve Staunton, Glenn Hysen, Ray Houghton and Dean Saunders and the problem may well land with a thump on Ron Atkinson's desk next season.

Ferguson, having just bought Peter Schmeichel, tried to manoeuvre his big squad. He was helped, this season, by the introduction of 'assimilated players', defined by Uefa as foreign-born players who have played five uninterrupted years in another country, three of which must be in youth football. However, the amended regulation brought widespread confusion.

Ian Rush, for instance, is an assimilated player; Mark Hughes is a foreigner. Before the first leg of the Torpedo match Ferguson interpreted the regulation to mean that he could play three foreigners and two assimilated players, bringing his total to the permitted five.

Because of injuries and disqualifications he had to call three 17- year-olds into his squad to guard a depleted midfield and forego playing his potential match-winner, the Welshman Ryan Giggs. He admitted that his priority was to ensure that Torpedo did not snatch an invaluable away goal.

That aim was accomplished in a 0-0 draw and Ferguson arrived in Moscow believing that extra time was probable and that the match would go to penalties. His team, he emphasised, would not be practising penalties because that would be defeatist. By then he had learned that Uefa's ambiguously worded regulation allowed him to play any number of assimilated players, with a maximum of three foreigners, up to a combined total of five.

Ferguson had been forced to break up his highly successful League formation and as draws against Spurs, Brighton and Queen's Park Rangers revealed, the team had lost their scoring touch again: two goals in five matches was poor preparation for a European second leg in which a score was crucial. Dion Dublin, the striker bought to fill such a gap, and Lee Sharpe, the reserve artillery, were injured and ill.

When it did come to a penalty shoot-out Hughes, who would have been one of the first five takers, had already been sent off. Nevertheless it strained credulity when Steve Bruce, the regular taker, Brian McClair and Gary Pallister all failed to score.

The lack of a consistent goalscorer has been the recurring theme of Ferguson's six-year reign. When he comes to write his next book he may reveal how he was thwarted, by boardroom decisions, in his desire to sign Gary Lineker from Barcelona and Alan Shearer from Southampton. The directors would argue that United already have one of the largest playing staffs in British football, with a colossal wage bill, and that modernisation of Old Trafford, under the terms of the Taylor Report, was unavoidable and would cost pounds 13m.

Ferguson has also been thwarted by his club's generosity to their players. Such are the rewards for wearing the red shirt that it is almost impossible to persuade a player to leave: Hughes, Webb and Wallace were all expected to move last summer but in the end the only player to bring in a sizeable fee (pounds 800,000) was Mark Robins, and he took weeks to be convinced.

Attendances were causing alarm in the boardroom. The rise in prices - those who stood for pounds 6 last season are now being asked pounds 14 for a seat - has compensated for the loss of capacity, down from 48,000 to 34,000 while the Stretford End is rebuilt, but Old Trafford was virtually full again for the last home match, against QPR.

Robson and Paul Parker are fit again, although neither is likely to to face Middlesbrough on Saturday. Sharpe is back in training and Dublin hopes to be playing again in December. With only domestic challenges ahead and no Uefa restrictions to complicate selection, Ferguson can plan with confidence and continuity.

A sodden September night in Moscow, when McClair blazed high into the blackness over the goal and a red flare floated, mockingly triumphant, on to the wet grass, may yet be remembered as a faintly comical and irrelevant interlude in May's blossoms.

(Photograph omitted)

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