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Football: Ferguson demands more pride

THE REBEL Manchester United supporters can take at face value BSkyB's promise not to further tamper with kick-off times if their Old Trafford takeover is successful. Why should they? The satellite broadcaster is doing it already.

United versus Liverpool is arguably the fiercest-fought match in the Premiership season and a fixture as redolent of Lancashire tradition as hot pot. So they play it on the day least accustomed to hosting football, Thursday.

If you are one of Old Trafford's long-distance season ticket holders who has no chance of making the match after work then you will be interested, if not wholly surprised, in the reason: television.

BSkyB wanted to show the game live but its normal transmission times of Sunday or Monday were ruled out because of both clubs' European commitments next week. Saturday morning was mooted, as it has been for this fixture in the past, but then someone saw a gap in the crowded calendar. Hence tonight's 8pm kick-off.

The change has been embraced by the clubs because it gives them more time to prepare for Bayern Munich and Kosice respectively, but when United need to cultivate as many friends as possible among their supporters - yesterday the 28,000 shareholders were mailed leaflets opposing the BSkyB takeover - the timing is unfortunate.

Tonight's match will be the eighth shown live on television in the last nine days (Match of the Day highlights were shown on Saturday in addition), which ought to merit a reference to the Monopolies Commission, if only from the sizeable chunk of the population who have no interest in football. It ought to be too much, except this match whets even over-fed appetites.

"You never know how these games will go because they are two good teams," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said yesterday. "It's always a hard game, passionate and entertaining, and there are a lot of good players on both sides. It's an amazing derby because this is not a new-found rivalry, it's been going on for three decades at least, at city level as well as between the teams."

United gave their fans every reason to fear the worst in this pressure- cooker game with a performance against Arsenal on Sunday which was so flaccid that to describe their display as limp would be to insult ingrowing toenail sufferers. "I hope my players realise how badly they let themselves down," Ferguson said, darkly.

One could question the United manager's tactic of playing Ryan Giggs and Dwight Yorke against the towering Arsenal central defenders, but what was particularly disappointing was the lack of force in midfield. Angels normally fear to tread when Roy Keane and Nicky Butt are snapping; on Sunday, even before Butt was sent off, Patrick Vieira and Michael Hughes were allowed to dominate.

"Roy Keane is not a good loser," Ferguson said, anticipating a positive reaction tonight from a player who spent nearly a year recovering from a knee injury. "He won't have enjoyed what happened on Sunday.

"He's done better than I thought. We'll have to give him a break soon because he's been out for a long time and although he can survive on adrenalin for a few games he will hit a plateau or even dip. He needs to restore his energy levels."

A fully fit Keane against Paul Ince would be a clash to savour, particularly as the latter was described as a "big-time charlie" by Ferguson this week in a television documentary. Ince missed Saturday's draw against Charlton, however, and is doubtful for tonight.

His presence will be missed because, after comprehensively defeating Kosice in Slovakia, Liverpool were fortunate to get a point on Saturday when their chronic defensive flaws were exposed once more. Each year you expect something better from this richly talented team but, even though players come and go, the character - hair-wrenchingly inconsistent - remains the same.

There lies the key to the match. Last season Liverpool were reduced to 10 men for a half after Michael Owen was sent off yet they held on for a draw, denting United's title challenge. A show of similar backbone could embarrass United, but who knows how this fickle team will perform tonight? "There are no worries about motivating the players. They don't come any bigger than us against United," Liverpool's joint-manager, Roy Evans, said.

"I have plenty of players," Ferguson said, mindful of both sides' natures. "I just have to pick the right team. The Giggs-Yorke partnership didn't work at all against Arsenal but it doesn't mean I won't try it again. There won't be a lot of changes although I have options, including bringing in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Andy Cole and Paul Scholes."

If that suggests Ferguson is unlikely to release any of his squad, it is correct. Crystal Palace are rumoured to want Teddy Sheringham and Aston Villa have inquired about Andy Cole, but neither will succeed.

"I want to win the lottery but I can't," Ferguson said. "There are no players for sale. We need a strong squad to survive the season and we've got one. I think we should keep it."