Football: Ferguson looks on bright side

Guy Hodgson previews the weekend's football action
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The Independent Online
Another week in Europe, another week to wonder: If the Premiership is among the best Leagues in the world, why do our clubs perform so mediocrely against Continental opposition.

Manchester United personify the conundrum. Domestically they dominate but Wednesday's defeat by Juventus did not suggest the start of a return to the English supremacy of the 1970s and early 80s. Gaucheness seems to have been the problem, as it was against Rotor Volgograd last season and Barcelona and IFK Gothenburg two years ago.

Yet if the mood, exacerbated by defeats for Rangers, Celtic and Arsenal, was despondency, Alex Ferguson had not caught it. Perhaps it was the imminent signing of Barcelona's Miguel Angel Nadal, but the United manager was optimistic. "If we played Juventus tomorrow I think we would cope," he said. "We would handle them no problem. We learnt a lot about ourselves."

Ferguson, whose team defend a 31-match unbeaten home league run against Nottingham Forest today, also discovered yesterday that Nadal's arrival is almost certain, and he expects the 6ft 3in Spanish international central defender at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

A fee of pounds 2.4m was agreed three weeks ago, although Barcelona may come back with extra demands. "The chairman still has some talking to do," said Ferguson, who believes Nadal's acquisition will make the United squad the strongest in his 10-year time at the club.

"We have signed Europeans who can perform on the top stages," he said, while suggesting that his side would differ little from that which played in Turin. Forest, the last team to beat United at home in December 1994, have doubts about Kevin Campbell and Bryan Roy to add to the injury that will rule out Steve Stone for the season.

Ray Harford has had injury problems for as long as he has been manager at Blackburn, but his problem now would appear to be who he should leave out. Not that he is blessed with riches, but with a choice of under-performing players whose 2-1 defeat by Derby on Monday means they have only one point from five matches.

"Maybe we need a fresh face to lift everyone - possibly the manager," he joked after the last defeat, although true words and jest have an uncomfortable knack of coming together, particularly when it comes to managers' jobs. So do fate and former players.

Last week Eric Cantona scored the last goal to be conceded by his former club, Leeds, under the stewardship of Howard Wilkinson and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Alan Shearer could repeat that today at St James' Park. Shearer plays his first game against Blackburn since the pounds 15m transfer to Newcastle in the summer and is itching to score after missing out in the 4-0 rout of Halmstads in the Uefa Cup on Tuesday. "I'm sure Alan will want to do well," Chris Sutton, Shearer's erstwhile partner and heir apparent, said, "but we have to concentrate on stringing together some results."

Coventry also need a satisfying sequence because if anyone fears finding a new name on his office door more than Harford, it is Ron Atkinson. Paradoxically, the opponents at Highfield Road today are Leeds who will be playing their first game under Wilkinson's successor, George Graham.

Coventry are below Blackburn on goal difference, despite spending more than pounds 18m in the last two years but one of those signings, Liam Daish, believes it is time for the players to repay Atkinson's faith. "Ron has been keeping the lads spirits up and told us that it is in our hands. We have got ourselves into this and are good enough to get out,'' he said. "We have to put everything to the back of our minds now and forget about the situation we are in.''

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