Ferguson fights to recover confidence

Glenn Moore on the way ahead for Manchester United after a bad 10 days
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Manchester City fans will have enjoyed it most - Maine Road is where the blue and yellow shirts of Fenerbahce will soon be sported - but they are not the biggest domestic beneficiaries of Manchester United's unexpected Champions' League defeat on Wednesday night.

Liverpool, Newcastle, Arsenal and any other side with pretensions to United's Premiership crown have most reason to be grateful to the Turkish champions. For weeks it has seemed that United have been putting their domestic campaign on the back burner while they concentrate on Europe. Wednesday was supposed to be the night they tied up that adventure until the quarter-finals in March and redirected their attention to the English game.

Instead, they face Chelsea tomorrow, and Arsenal a week later, knowing they have Juventus looming on 20 November. Even a United victory would secure qualification only if Fenerbahce fail to defeat Rapid Vienna at home the same night. United's European fate is thus unlikely to be settled until 6 December, when they travel to Vienna and the Turks to Turin.

"We are still in a better position than Fenerbahce," Alex Ferguson said yesterday. The 1-0 defeat was United's first at home in Europe in 40 years and 57 matches, but the United manager added: "Losing the game was more important than losing the record.

"Some poor soul was going to lose it eventually, it happened to be me. We're not delighted to lose it, but in a way it is a relief. There were times when the team were worrying more abut losing the record than winning matches. Now it is out of the way."

Tomorrow's match against Chelsea has assumed extra importance, however, in the wake of United's loss of confidence. It may seem a daft suggestion but, at present, United might even struggle to beat their First Division neighbours - not City, but Oldham Athletic. Oldham may still be bottom of the First Division, but they have started winning. United are the champions and are bulging with talent and medals, yet they have been losing - and losing badly. As Jordi Cruyff admitted on Wednesday night: "When you've been losing like we have, it eats away at you."

Cruyff is only 22 yet he is older than six of the 14 United players who were involved on Wednesday. United's youthful face, so refreshing, so energising in victory, is a problem in defeat. Confidence is fragile enough in many senior footballers; young men who have little experience of defeat are even more vulnerable and few at United are experienced at losing.

A test then, for Ferguson. There are three solutions to a loss of confidence: change the faces, change the places, or change the routine. He might try them all.

In the aftermath of defeat, Manchester was humming with rumours of an imminent signing. The long pursuit of Miguel Angel Nadal, Barcelona's Spanish international defender, may be nearing an end. However, it is suggested that he will not be arriving at Old Trafford until 15 December, when the Spanish transfer market reopens. In the light of Gary Pallister's injury problems, United may well attempt to speed his release.

United's need for a centre-forward is even more pressing than for a centre- half. Eric Cantona again appeared unhappy playing with his back to goal on Wednesday, but Ferguson's options are limited.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has, understandably, looked jaded recently; Paul Scholes is no more a leader of the line than Cantona, and Andy Cole is injured. Perhaps Jordi Cruyff could have played there, though he does not appear a natural centre-forward either. How United missed an Alan Shearer or a Les Ferdinand.

While he awaits new blood Ferguson can shuffle the pack. Again, options are limited. Phil Neville is back, but Pallister is out and Ryan Giggs will not be fit until the Arsenal game at the earliest. Roy Keane will miss that match through suspension after his dismissal at The Dell.

One other thing Ferguson could do - but will not - is change the captaincy. Cantona has not proved a success in the role. He may have presence, but he is not the inspiration Steve Bruce was, especially when he is struggling with his own game. Yet who else is there? Most of the team are too young or too new. Peter Schmeichel is a possibility, but it is difficult to lead a team from in goal; Denis Irwin is too quiet; David May is unsure of his place. Pallister is the best candidate, but how often will he be fit?

It all makes for a difficult time for Ferguson, but he has come through far worse in his decade at the club. Think of 1990, when his job appeared on the line. Think of last season, when Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes had left. United's form is now more than a blip, but it is not yet a crisis. Nor is it likely to become one.

A leading bookmaker yesterday halved its odds from 6-1 to 3-1 that Ferguson will not be United's manager on the final day of the season. William Hill also quoted United at 100-1 to be relegated.

Pallister's operation, page 31

`The record can intimidate foreign teams but it can be intimidating for myself. I do not want to be the manager who loses it. At some point it is going to happen but I hope it is long after I have gone to the great penalty box in the sky and am in peace.'

Alex Ferguson speaking in September about Manchester United's unbeaten home record in European competition.

MANCHESTER UNITED'S HOME RECORD IN EUROPE

1956-57 European Cup

Prelim Anderlecht 10-0 (12-0 agg)

1st rd Borussia Dortmund 3-2 (3-2)

Q-f Athletic Bilbao 3-O (6-5)

S-f Real Madrid 2-2 (3-5)

1957-58 European Cup

Prelim Shamrock Rovers 3-2 (12-0)

1rd Dukla Prague 3-0 (3-1)

Q-f Red Star Belgrade 2-1 (5-4)

S-f Milan 2-1 (2-5)

1963-64 Cup-Winners' Cup

1rd Willem Il Tilburg 6-1 (7-2)

2rd Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 (4-3)

Q-f Sporting Lisbon 4-1 (4-6)

1964-65 Fairs Cup

1rd Djurgarden 6-1 (7-2)

2rd Borussia Dortmund 4-0 (10-1)

3rd Everton 1-1 (3-2)

Q-f RacingClub Strasbourg 0-0 (5-0)

S-f Ferencvaros 3-2 (3-3) lost play-off 1-2

1965-66 European Cup

Prelim HJK Helsinki 6-0 (9-2)

1rd Vorwarts Berlin 3-1 (5-1)

Q-f Benfica 3-2 (8-3)

S-f Partizan Belgrade 1-0 (1-2)

1967-68 European Cup

1rd Hibernians Paola 4-0 (4-0)

2rd FK Sarajevo 2-1 (2-1)

Q-f Gornik Zabrze 2-0 (2-1)

S-f Real Madrid 1-0 (4-3)

*Final Benfica 4-1

1968-69 European Cup

1rd Waterford 7-1 (10-2)

2rd Anderlecht 3-0 (4-3)

Q-f Rapid Vienna 3-0 (3-0)

S-f Milan 1-0 (1-2)

1976-77 Uefa Cup

1rd Ajax 2-0 (2-1)

2rd Juventus 1-0 (1-3)

1977-78 Cup-Winners' Cup

*1rd St Etienne 2-0 (3-1)

2rd Porto 5-2 (5-6)

1980-81 Uefa Cup

1rd Widzew Lodz 1-1 (1-1) lost on away goals

1982-83 Uefa Cup

1rd Valencia 0-0 (1-2)

1983-84 Cup-Winners' Cup

1rd Dukla Prague 1-1 (3-3) won on away goals

2rd Spartak Varna 2-0 (4-1)

Q-f Barcelona 3-0 (5-2)

S-f Juventus 1-1 (1-2)

1984-85 Uefa Cup

1rd Raba ETO Gyor 3-0 (5-2)

2rd PSV Eindhoven 1-0 (1-0)

3rd Dundee Utd 2-2 (5-4)

Q-f Videoton 1-0 (1-1) Iost on penalties

1990-91 Cup-Winners' Cup

1rd Pecsi Munkas 2-0 (3-0)

2rd Wrexham 3-0 (5-0)

Q-f Montpellier 1-1 (3-1)

S-f Legia Warsaw 1-1 (4-2)

*Final Barcelona 2-1

1991-92 Cup-Winners' Cup

1rd Athinaikos 2-0 (2-0)

2rd Atletico Madrid 1-1 (1-4)

1992-93 Uefa Cup

1rd Torpedo Moscow 0-0 (0-0) lost on penalties

1993-94 European Cup

1rd Kispest Honved 2-1 (5-3)

2rd Galatasaray 3-3 (3-3) lost on away goals

1994-95 Champions' League

IFK Gothenburg 4-1

Barcelona 2-2

Galatasaray 4-0

1995-96 Uefa Cup

1rd Rotor Volgograd 2-2 (2-2) lost on away goals

1996-97 Champions' League

Rapid Vienna 2-0

Fenerbahce 0-1

* Played at a neutral venue

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