Football: Ferguson frets over perennial problem

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Alex Ferguson yesterday received the plaudits of his peers for his team's brilliant display against Juventus, but at yesterday's first official gathering of football coaches Glenn Moore found the Manchester United manager with much on his mind.

Win or lose he would have been there but there was a special pleasure for Alex Ferguson in taking the acclaim of his peers at the Football Association's first official gathering of coaches yesterday.

One by one they paid tribute to Manchester United's thrilling 3-2 win over Juventus on Wednesday night - Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, Jimmy Armfield, the FA's special advisor, Gerhard Houllier, France's technical director and Howard Wilkinson, his English counterpart. Even the representative from Fifa, football's world governing body, had a word of praise.

But there were also two shadows on the horizon. The more immediate concerned Roy Keane's cruciate ligament injury which will keep him out of the game until next season at the earliest. The other was the perrenial problem of fixture congestion.

Ferguson said there will be no immediate rush to replace Keane, since they cannot play a new signing in Europe until after Christmas, and the completion of the Champions' League stage, there is no point. The remaining players - who beat Juventus without Keane - look capable of maintaining United's domestic campaign well enough for the time being.

Much, though, will rest on the continued fitness of Nicky Butt and Ronny Johnsen. After a difficult start the Norwegian did well to largely contain the threat of Zinedine Zidane. "I was very pleased with the tactical discipline the midfield showed," Ferguson said. "That is something we learned from last season. You can talk about Dortmund's goal being deflected but it was a bad goal to give away because our midfield was strung out. You must have cover in central midfield all the time and I was pleased we always had two in there even when we were attacking."

Now, however, Ferguson said he had to bring the team down then build them up to play against Crystal Palace tomorrow. And so it will continue, Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday throughout the season.

"At present," Ferguson said, "we are scheduled to play Aston Villa on the Monday of the European semi-finals second-leg week (April 13, Easter Monday). If either of us get there we obviously won't play the game but it will be hard to rearrange it. So we are trying to bring the game forward but we simply cannot find a date.

"We could play as we did last night, and Newcastle against Barcelona, but you can't do it all the time and it is one thing to play with that intensity in October but another entirely to do it in April.''

The problem was put into sharp relief when Houllier explained how, in France, clubs never play more than two games between European legs. Thus, while Aston Villa faced Liverpool last midweek, then Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, their Uefa Cup opponents had one match which they were able to bring forward to last Friday. In the event Villa won but it was mighty close; Arsenal and Leicester did not.

"It is for the good of everyone," Houllier said. "The more clubs progress, the higher the Uefa ranking, the more clubs can enter the Uefa Cup and the more interest there is in going for those places." Since the French brought in the change, their success in Europe has gone from winning 27 per cent of fixtures to 50 per cent.

The problem is clubs who see little further than self-interest. More Premiership clubs fear relegation then entertain serious hopes of European glory and, understandably, they will thus not countenance a reduction in numbers.

"I don't think any English club can again dominate the European Cup the way Liverpool did, there is too much competition from the Italians, the French, and others. But English clubs can win it. England has some of the best young players in Europe.

Several of them play for United and England and, with an eye on England's World Cup tie in Rome on 11 October, Hoddle said: "I'd like to congratulate Alex on a magnificent performance and result. The first part of the England- Italy battle is over with. This has set us up nicely for next week.''

Ferguson responded: "There is nothing to be afraid of. Glenn has built a good unit with good young players. England will need good defending. It will be a tough night physically, tactically and ability-wise. Italian football is very aggressive, defenders defend as if they mean it but there has to be a belief in what England will try and achieve in Rome. I think they will do it. I am one of the few who always have.''