Football: Signs of United'shard times

Nick Townsend in Monaco sees a rare stumble from the champions

AS THE final whistle sounded above the raucous serenade of the Roman supporters for their victorious team, Lazio rejoiced at their 1- 0 victory over Manchester United in the European Super Cup in Monaco like the brightest pupils who have just ripped open their A-level results, the only difference being that this outcome was somewhat less predictable.

They knelt on the ground, looked to the skies and crossed themselves. Disbelief was mixed with sheer joy. For Lazio, this was indeed a Super Cup. For Manchester United, it was merely superficial. Sir Alex Ferguson's side, looking the antithesis of the spirited treble-winners who scaled such remarkable heights three months ago, certainly in terms of the personnel who finished the game, trooped away, their manager already preparing for a rather more important examination on Monday.

A member of the BBC team who covered it compared events at Stade Louis II, Monaco, unfavourably with a final of the Freight Rover Trophy (remember that?), although that would unfairly denigrate the Italian side, the last European Cup Winners' Cup victors and Serie A runners-up, who demonstrated that they are determined to make Milan's title theirs this season.

As pots go, failure to secure the Uefa Super Cup will not leave a giant gap on the Old Trafford sideboard. This was all about priorities, and though the Italian media were scornful when it was explained to them that United's apparent insouciance after the defeat could be attributed to a game against Coventry last Wednesday, and another at home to Newcastle tomorrow, they were soon to be persuaded.

No Ryan Giggs, Denis Irwin and most significantly, Dwight Yorke. By the hour, David Beckham and Jaap Stam had disappeared, too. Yet, even a weakened Manchester United are normally a considerable power to be reckoned with. A three-pronged assault force of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham looked adventurous enough. Yet, they only conjured three opportunities all night. After the gifted Chilean striker Marcelo Salas had entered the arena as substitute and embarrassed the United rearguard and, particularly, the stand-in goalkeeper Raimond van der Gouw, with the only goal, United rarely appeared capable of responding in like fashion on a sultry, physically- draining night. Indeed, with a little more poise in front of goal, Lazio might well have achieved the unthinkable and given their celebrated opponents a rare pasting.

Defeat is not usually borne easily by Sir Alex - the Worthington Cup is his only exception - but he said with the hint of a shrug: "It's no problem for us. We set out to win it with a different team. I tried to go for it as skillfully as I could. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

"We got off to a good start, but once they scored I knew it was going to be difficult. From that moment on, I wasn't prepared to risk my players. Stam is the most serious casualty and he'll be doubtful for Monday. I'm not sure if Gary Neville will be ready for Monday either, quite honestly, although he did well in the centre of our defence once Stam went off. Beckham may be all right and I've got Butt to come in to replace Roy Keane. I've also got the boy Quinton Fortune to come in and freshen things up."

The South African, signed from Atletico Madrid, has impressed the United manager in training and Ferguson enthused: "He can play through the middle, or on the left-hand side. He's a very versatile player and got a good engine."

The fact is, though, the extra games are stretching even United's resources and there are plenty more such excursions to come. When Sir Alex says that he is "down to the bones in central defence", it may raise a hollow laugh from the rest of England but there is truth in his words. Even those fit members looked jaded towards the latter parts of this contest, and it could be a forewarning to United of the effects of the coming rigours.

United's next adventure takes them to Tokyo on 30 November for the European/South American Cup, which is followed by the Fifa World Championships of Clubs in Brazil in January. In between, there is the small matter of the Champions' League group matches and the Premiership. As a rule, United should have the reserves to cope, but Teddy Sheringham admitted that he was concerned that for the English game as a whole such demanding schedules could imperil the careers of our most talented players.

"West Ham have already played eight or nine games because they've had to qualify for Europe, and that will just burn out people like Rio Ferdinand. Players like him and Michael Owen won't be playing by the time they're 25, 26. English football is going to have to look at it. The pressure of playing football is just getting more and more. The more money you get paid, the more pressure they put on you to perform and I don't think that'll ever change."

Ferguson won't get drawn into voicing whatever concerns he harbours about United's programme. He is satisfied that his team has the Saturday free before their game in Tokyo, and in Brazil they only face four games in 12 days. Despite turning a seemingly benign eye to this defeat, he will not have been happy that United were defeated by one of their possible Champions' League rivals. "In the Premiership, they've got off to a good start and they've been playing really well in the League games," he said. "Tonight, that was not anywhere near what you expect from Manchester United and I think the players know that. But it's tiredness and travelling the day after playing at Highfield Road, particularly after the way Coventry play. They run the balls off you so you have to run to match it."

At least the game gave Andy Cole the opportunity to work off whatever anger he feels at Kevin Keegan for leaving him out of the England squad. He began looking incisive and creative. He fashioned a fine chance for Sheringham which brought a splendid save from Luca Marchegiani, but thereafter he suffered from the general United malaise.

"I thought all our players were going to be picked, but all Andy can do is to prove with Manchester United that he's a good centre-forward. I don't think anyone doubts that, including Kevin," said Ferguson. "It's very difficult when you get so many strikers in the England camp and you've just got to hope he's picking the right ones. There's no point in bringing in extra strikers when he's already got four. Owen, Fowler, Sheringham, Shearer - there's a lot of choices there, so it's no discredit to Andy to be left out."

He departed to the cacophony of Italian celebration and his counterpart Sven-Goran Eriksson luxuriating in what, for the Italian club, will be regarded as a famous success. "It is great to have a trophy, we've got plenty of space for more," said the Lazio coach. "Salas really surprised me because he played in the Copa America, and only came back into training 10 days ago." The Swede, of course, would also like to improve his team still further with the purchase of a certain Roy Keane.

Though the coach was understandably coy about the matter. "I think everybody wants Keane," he said. "But otherwise no comment." None needed.

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