Football: Champions' League - Ferguson running out of cover

Treble winners count casualties as Arsenal and Chelsea count their blessings
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The Independent Online
WHEN Sir Alex Ferguson says he will have to make do with what he's got, fixing you with those fierce blue eyes, it is best to take his word for it. Best too, in a family newspaper, not to print the probable reaction of the new Labour knight to news emanating from Uefa headquarters in Switzerland late last week. "I don't know of anyone who has ever won an appeal from Uefa," Sir Alex said.

So perhaps it was no surprise that United's request to have Massimo Taibi registered for the first phase of the Champions' League was rejected by Europe's governing body. Neither the pounds 4.5m goalkeeper from Venezia nor the French Under-21 international defender Mickael Silvestre will be eligible to aid United's European defence until the second round of league matches begins in the New Year.

At least Ferguson has cover in goal, though neither Mark Bosnich nor Raimond van der Gouw seemed to have filled the manager with confidence so far this season. Elsewhere in defence, his squad was starting to look worryingly threadbare two days before United's opening Champions' League fixture against Croatia Zagreb at Old Trafford.

Already deprived of Wes Brown, David May, Denis Irwin and Ronny Johnsen, Ferguson must have watched in horror as Gary Neville was stretchered out of England's match in Poland with a torn adductor muscle. For good measure, Roy Keane is also absent, along with Jesper Blomqvist, and David Beckham's suspect hamstring needed treatment on his return from Poland. To win this bloated tournament, United will have to play 17 matches, four more than last season, and already the yellow brick road trod so gloriously to Barcelona is beginning to resemble the retreat from Moscow.

Their luck in the draw, at least, seems to have improved. Marseille and Zagreb, their main contenders for qualification, hardly have the European pedigree of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, United's companions at the sole group stage last season. Sturm Graz, the Austrian champions, like Brondby before them, should be there to make up the numbers. But then again. "We thought we had an easy group with Galatasaray at home and found ourselves 2-0 down inside 10 minutes," Ferguson said. "We scrambled back to draw, but we can make life difficult for ourselves."

Shutting down games will be a key skill, one not readily mastered by a team wedded to adventure. United might be able to engage cruise mode against the likes of Coventry or Sheffield Wednesday, but allowing players of the calibre of Robert Prosinecki too much licence is to invite a swift transfer to the third round of the Uefa Cup, the laughable refuge for all the third-placed teams in the opening group stages of the Champions' League.

What will concern Ferguson at this stage is not just the length of his casualty list, but the nature of the injuries, nasty, niggly little pulls and strains more commonly experienced at the end of a long season. A year ago, Gary Neville, for one, seemed just about indestructible, the footballing equivalent of a mechanical toy, complete with instructions. Take out of box, wind key, set down. Until Jaap Stam found his feet after Christmas, Neville was United's most accomplished defender, whether he played in his customary position at right full- back or at the centre of the defence in the absence of Johnsen. But the seasonal slog took its toll and Neville's form slumped so alarmingly only force of habit and the extraordinary momentum generated by United's run to the Treble kept him going to the end.

"It's just the effect of playing with an injury too long," says Ferguson. "We wanted to rest him a few times last year, but he didn't want to because they were all important games. He's played through injuries - Brucy [Steve Bruce] used to do that all the time - but now he's paid the penalty." And so have United.

It is a well-worn principle in business that standing still means going backwards, an oft-quoted sporting adage that staying at the top is harder than getting there, but it is hard to see how or where United can make the necessary improvements. In their sense of belief, maybe. A year on, victory in the European Cup is no longer some impossible dream. United's supreme form in the Premiership does not suggest a side content to polish the silverware.

"The players don't really talk about Europe or the European Cup final," Ferguson says. "They've enjoyed playing in Europe; it's been a good challenge for them over the last three years. The attitude of the players so far in the League has been outstanding, so I don't anticipate them letting themselves down in that area in Europe." The impetus which carried United into the history books in May is, he adds, largely self-generated.

"Some things are natural and that sort of momentum is one of them. People like the Nevilles, Stam, Butt, Scholes, Keane, they're all winners and they all have a part to play in making sure we keep winning."

Ferguson, though, will be wary of a side as volatile as Croatia Zagreb, who beat Ajax away then lost 3-0 to a lacklustre Porto side in the Champions' League last year. In the image of Bill Shankly and Sir Matt Busby before him, he sets no great store by tactical masterplans, but he will be wary of Prosinecki's talents in midfield and of the need for Ryan Giggs and David Beckham to counter the pace of Zagreb's wing-backs. If the Croats are feeling adventurous, they might regard this as an ideal opportunity to expose the champions. No team managed by Ossie Ardiles has been noted for its defensive qualities; more likely, they will hope to draw United on to them and profit from the counter-attack.

This tournament marks a new era in European football too. The grand old European Cup is now more than ever a European Super League with play-off, a revised format marked in England by the arrival of OnDigital, an enthusiastic newcomer to the increasingly confused television market. Their literature boasts of a footballing orgy: 157 matches, 16 matches a week, every goal. Stamina and ingenuity will be required on the settee as well as at Old Trafford where a confident start to the new campaign is imperative for United. It would be a big surprise if the conquerors of Juventus, Internazionale and Bayern failed to mark their first match as European champions in suitable style. At this early stage, Ferguson would settle for victory without a designer label or any more doctor's certificates.