Ferguson mans the barricades

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The Independent Online
The vultures gathered in the Old Trafford press suite yesterday, writes Glenn Moore. Suddenly there were 11 reasons to suspect that, contrary to expectations when the draw was made, Fenerbahce could beat Manchester United in the Champions' League tonight.

Their visitors certainly believe they can. Fenerbahce do not have a very high opinion of Graeme Souness, not after he planted a Galatasaray flag in their pitch last season, and not after they deposed his team as Turkish champions. So they were encouraged that his new team, unheralded Southampton, had followed Newcastle's quintet of goals with six of their own.

"When he was in Turkey Souness didn't know anything about football," said Uygun Bulent, one of the Fenerbahce players. "If his side can score six against United, then why can't we beat them on Wednesday?"

Are United in crisis? That was what the press wanted to know yesterday. After a few minutes discussing injuries with Alex Ferguson the first tentative inquiry was broached: "Is it a relief to have the opportunity to get the show back on the road after the last two games?"

"Why are you talking about that; why do you think that should be on my agenda?" Ferguson rapped back. "I've got a game tomorrow, we always look forward to a European tie here."

"Do you put it down as an aberration?" came another attempt. "I'm not discussing it. Why should I?" the United manager replied.

The press are nothing if not persistent so, a minute later, there was another try. "Alex, you've obviously dismissed the last few results. Do you think it will be preying on your players' minds at all or are they just as..."

"Let me stop you there right now," Ferguson interrupted. "I'm not discussing anything that has happened before. Right? You've heard me saying that twice. It is not on my agenda. You can talk about it - you'll do plenty of talking about it - I don't see why I should."

Phew. "Angry Fergie feels the strain"? It does not look too good and it did not sound too good but the words are deceptive. Ferguson does have genuine rages but he is also good at staging them. Yesterday there was a feeling that, any moment, he would crack into a grin and indeed, 10 minutes later, he had mellowed and said: "We don't forget it but we don't dwell on it. There is a difference. There is no gain for me to dwell on it, once I have had my say on Saturday it is over. Why leave it to Monday when you know on Saturday."

By now he was even slipping in a joke or two. "Jock Stein said to me `sort it on Monday'. I tried it once, hopeless. I'm in too good a mood - I can't ruin the image. You have got to be able to assess there and then rather than wait to Monday. You could have read the papers by then, been exposed to other influences. I had a manager once said to me: `My butcher thought you were offside on Saturday'. I said: `Did you think I was offside?' He said: `I never saw it'. A butcher?

"I have a big game coming so obviously we have tried to take the more positive side of it. I think the players will be ready for it. It is a great night for them, a great opportunity."

United have injury doubts over Gary Pallister and Nicky Butt. Pallister is very doubtful, Butt just doubtful. Ryan Giggs is already out. Fenerbahce have doubts over Denmark's Jes Hogh and Bulgaria's Emil Kostadinov.

Ronnie Johnsen is set to replace Pallister in a flat back four, with David Beckham and Jordi Cruyff flanking Butt and Roy Keane in midfield. However, if Butt is unfit Ferguson is likely to change the complexion of the team with Phil Neville coming in, possibly in a five-man defence.

"Fenerbahce have to win it," Ferguson added. "It could be a really good, open match."

The last time United had a really good, open match against a Turkish side at Old Trafford they were held to a 3-3 draw by Galatasaray and went out. A salutary experience but one which is unlikely to be repeated. United to win, and put those crisis headlines to rest.