Football: Supermen myth is laid bare by United's failings

Alex Ferguson needs to buy quality players if his ambition to dominate Europe is to be fulfilled, says Guy Hodgson
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SOMETHING was gained in the translation. When the Monaco president, Jean-Louis Campora, reflected on reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup he said: "Tonight we beat a myth of football. Manchester United are a myth."

Campora's happy, smiling demeanour and his politician's breeding -- his day job is the equivalent of Prime Minister of the principality - suggested he had intended to be more diplomatic. Legend was what he meant although, unwittingly, he may have stumbled upon a half-truth. United's supposed invincibility had been built on myth.

Not so long ago it was a popular assertion: Manchester United were the best team in Europe. Forget the fact they had yet to win the trophy to confirm the premise, it was the thing that managers clung to when their charges were being walloped. What can we do when we're playing supermen?

The last two months have laid bare the hollowness of those beliefs. Maybe United, when they have all their players at their disposal, are a match for anyone in the continent. Even then it is only a maybe. The proof is in the beating.

Since United were serenely leading their supposed closest challengers, Chelsea, 5-0 during what seemed to be the season's defining moment on 4 January, the form of the champions has been little above relegation fodder. They have gone out of the European Cup and FA Cup, while in the Premiership they have scored nine goals and gained 14 points out of a potential 30.

The table which appeared to be about to heave with glittering prizes has been left nearly bare and even the domestic championship, which everyone assumed was theirs for the taking, has gone from being a formality to a task fraught with difficulties. Old Trafford is coming to terms with a disagreeable truth: United might not win anything this season.

"Now, winning the Premiership has become even more important than it was before," Peter Schmeichel said amid the debris of the dreams of European supremacy. "With all the international players we have it does not bear thinking about that we might not be in the Champions' League next season."

All the players. That is where people on the outside with the club's interests at heart differ from those within. On Wednesday night Phil Neville said that no team in Europe could easily shrug off long-term injuries to Schmeichel, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs, not to mention the debilitating niggles that have struck Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. Agreed. Where others might demur is over the quality of the replacements.

On Wednesday when United were looking for a match-winner to unlock a Monaco defence that was tiring, who did Alex Ferguson have at his disposal? From a look at the substitutes' bench either the spent force that is Brian McClair or the unproven one that is Ben Thornley. Pertinently, the manager chose to ignore both of them.

Without the broadsword, never mind the rapier, he had to resort to the bludgeon in the shape of Henning Berg, who was sent forward like some ageing battleship to be embarrassed by swifter, more skilful opponents. Lower division clubs do things like that in search of a sucker punch in FA Cup matches - but future European champions?

Afterwards, Ferguson, the disappointment cutting deep lines in his florid features, mumbled about not getting he breaks you need in Europe and in a sense he was right. United should have had a penalty when Martin Djetou jumped with his arms raised at Teddy Sheringham's overhead cross and the hugely impressive David Beckham might have contrived something spectacular, but the stark truth over two legs was that Monaco were the better team.

You make your own breaks, and Ferguson's inability to strengthen his squad even as it began to succumb to injury has been the principal reason why they did not. It seemed good business when Karel Poborsky was sold to Benfica, but the disinclination to buy a replacement was not.

The Czech winger might not have been quite good enough for the United first team, but he would still have been better than Thornley, whose early promise refuses to blossom. Now, without Giggs, there is no one with the speed on the flanks to turn defenders and force crosses from uncomfortable positions.

Perhaps if there were, the attack would begin to inspire fear again. Andy Cole had a good game against Monaco, but did not get a sniff of a chance while the assertions that Sheringham is the ideal replacement for Eric Cantona are becoming more fanciful by the week. A good link player he might be, but the England striker has a diminishing ability to turn games and, no matter the shortcomings of Cantona in Europe, he was peerless as a scorer of point-winning goals in the Premiership.

Add a goal to the defeats against Southampton, Leicester, and Arsenal, or to the draws against Bolton and West Ham - and Cantona usually did - and United's season would take on a totally different perspective. A single extra strike against Monaco, too, was all that was required.

So where are United now? Paradoxically, Wednesday's defeat will have enhanced their prospects of winning their third successive championship and their fifth in six years. Schmeichel and Giggs are approaching fitness and Arsenal, their principal challengers, have a minimum of four extra fixtures to shoe-horn into the season's congested finale.

Tiredness will grip the Gunners, who will have to do without Dennis Bergkamp for three matches, just as surely as it had tugged at United's shirts in recent weeks and a runners-up spot and a place in the Champions' League appears to be the least United can expect.

Their dream of European dominance will continue to be unfulfilled, however, until they have a squad strong enough to withstand the vagaries of fitness and form. They need to buy and they need to buy at the top end of the market - players of the calibre of Coventry's Darren Huckerby.

Funnily enough, people were saying exactly the same 12 months ago. The time has gone when you could win European Cups on the cheap.

NEW YEAR IRRESOLUTION: UNITED'S RECORD IN '98

January

4 Chelsea 3 Man Utd 5 (FA Cup)

10 Man Utd 2 Tottenham 0 (League)

19 Southampton 1 Man Utd 0 (L)

24 Man Utd 5 Walsall 1 (FAC)

31 Man Utd 0 Leicester City 1 (L)

February

7 Man Utd 1 Bolton Wanderers 1 (L)

15 Man Utd 1 Barnsley 1 (FAC)

18 Aston Villa 0 Man Utd 2 (L)

21 Man Utd 2 Derby County 0 (L)

25 Barnsley 3 Man Utd 2 (FAC)

28 Chelsea 0 Man Utd 1 (L)

March

4 Monaco 0 Man Utd 0 (European Cup)

7 Sheffield Wed 2 Man Utd 0 (L)

11 Man Utd 1 West Ham 1 (L)

14 Man Utd 0 Arsenal 1 (L)

18 Man Utd 1 Monaco 1 (EC)

(United lose on away goals)

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