Ferguson looks and learns for the future

Guy Hodgson assesses the aftermath of Manchester United's European exit
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The Independent Online
It is amazing how quickly the sense of expectation dissipated. At 8pm on Tuesday Old Trafford cheerfully contemplated prog- ress in the Uefa Cup heralding the return of Eric Cantona. By 8.23 that hope had gone.

Manchester United have had some grim nights in Europe recently - defeats by Barcelona and Gothenburg and the home draw with Galatasaray come readily to mind - but nothing quite compared to the opening quarter against Rotor Volgograd. To describe it as disorganised would put a gloss on it.

The warning was there in the seventh minute when Vladimir Nidergaus skipped past two tackles and crossed to Alex Zernov, who headed wide. Fingers were pointed in the United defence, not by way of accusation, but information. The Russian formation was bewildering the youngsters. They did not know who to mark and were uncertain where to stand.

Sixteen minutes later and the questions had become virtually academic as Nidergaus and Oleg Veretennikov had put Rotor 2-0 ahead. Adrenalin and a supportive crowd dragged United back to 2-2 but the away goals rule proved too much. They were brave and unlucky but they were exposed as cerebrally lacking, too.

It was a turnaround from what had happened in Volgograd in the first, scoreless, leg. Then United's movement and passing had been held up against the inflexibility of Blackburn in the Champions' League and described as the way for English clubs to go. You can imagine (at least until last night) the sniggering around Ewood Park when the paragons of a fortnight ago were made to look tactically naive.

The Volgograd strikers pulled wide and the void was filled by midfield players, who were not picked up properly either by their counterparts or the back four. To add to United's problems, the Russians marked man for man all over the pitch, which meant a shortage of targets for the player with the ball.

"We were nervous when we were in possession," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said, "and there was a lack of understanding about how these teams play against you. Whereas in our game midfield players defend areas, they defend against each other and our players found that strange.

"What we told the players at half-time is that you can't pass the ball straight in Europe. You have to pass away from defenders at angles. We did that better in the second half. The urgency was better, too."

United had 18 attempts on target and on another night, surely, the goal they needed would have come from either of the two goal-line clearances or when the ball hit the bar and the post. Even so their one innovation belonged more to the eccentricity of Peter Schmeichel, than to any inspiration. And what did his appearance in the opposition area amount to other than a variation of pumping crosses at an old-fashioned English centre-forward?

Schmeichel got the goal which preserved United's unbeaten home record in Europe but a more valuable contribution might be the realisation that there has to be tactical change against Continental opposition.

"I don't think we can play 4-4-2." Ferguson said. "It's all right in the Premiership, where both teams play the same, but you get punished in Europe. They play three midfielders and two wing-backs and it's easy to be caught out.

"I'm not saying going out of the Uefa Cup is a good thing but the young players will have learned a lesson. We did extremely well in Russia but for the first 20 minutes at Old Trafford we didn't play as we should have done."

They also failed against York in the Coca-Cola Cup, and unless they pull that round in the second leg next Tuesday, United, seven weeks into the season, will have only the League and the FA Cup to play for. Cantona's return is becoming more important by the day.