Ferguson admits he has tinkered too much

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Sir Alex Ferguson was known as a tinkerer in the days when Claudio Ranieri was an obscure manager making the best of limited resources in the backwoods of Italian football.

Sir Alex Ferguson was known as a tinkerer in the days when Claudio Ranieri was an obscure manager making the best of limited resources in the backwoods of Italian football. To the kind of enlightened Manchester United fans who read The Red Issue or United we Stand he was "Tinkerbell Fergie", especially when having to adapt to Uefa's old rules limiting foreign players in the early Champions' League.

Yesterday, Ferguson, who usually relies on the Royal Family's old adage of "never apologise, never explain" was in confessional mood as he prepared for a match with Sparta Prague that will be played out in the shadow of Sunday's encounter with Arsenal. There had been too much fiddling with his team and for everybody's good it had to stop.

"Maybe at the moment I am making too many changes," he said on a day when he was forced to contemplate further shuffles to his pack. Roy Keane had picked up the gastric flu that had lain Ryan Giggs low. Rio Ferdinand had also not travelled to the Czech Republic, mourning the death of his grandmother. Quinton Fortune had picked up a calf injury on a debilitating international assignment with South Africa which had worsened during the goalless draw with Birmingham and he will now be out for two to three weeks.

Although cushioned by a vast array of talent, the Manchester United manager explained, using the Birmingham game as an example, just why he is forced to make changes. "Saturday was a case in point. Gabriel Heinze was coming back from South America and so I had to play Quinton Fortune [at left-back]. Because I knew Rio Ferdinand's situation would rule him out for Tuesday, I had to give Wes Brown a game and I decided to leave Mikaël Silvestre out because of that.

"Then, I had to decide who was the freshest of the international players. Ryan Giggs was out with gastroenteritis but I gambled a bit on Roy Keane and maybe he wasn't right. Wayne Rooney had had four games in a row. I spoke to him on Friday and I thought I detected a wee bit of tiredness, so being sub was the best place for him. He did come on against Birmingham after 60 minutes but it didn't do him any good. We are not getting consistent selection and it is becoming a problem."

Keane and Paul Scholes, Ferguson said, were still unquestionably Manchester United's best central midfielders and the problem was to find men to balance them. "There's no doubt we have got the players but at the moment I am picking the wrong teams for a variety of reasons. We thought Cristiano Ronaldo would be fresh enough to start on Saturday but he wasn't. As soon as he got on the bus, he fell asleep. I knew I'd made a mistake."

Ferguson never underestimates opponents, especially in the Champions' League, but with a match that could knock United out of the championship race on Sunday looming, he dealt with Sparta Prague swiftly. "They didn't really do anything against Fenerbahce, and Lyon were completely dominant against them. They are going to have to improve a lot."

Arsenal - and their manager's comments that United were a spent force - were playing on his mind. "It's not win or bust on Sunday but it's certainly very, very important. Arsenal can come to Old Trafford for a draw, which they did last year. They left out Thierry Henry, played it tight in midfield and it's possible they will again. But they're not lacking in confidence at the moment. Arsenal are a rolling stone that's gathering a lot of moss."

Sparta Prague (probable; 4-4-2): Blazek; Cech, Kovac, Homola, Petras; Urbanek, Sivok, Simak, Poborsky; Pacanda, Jun.

Manchester United (probable; 4-4-2): Carroll; G Neville, Brown, Silvestre, O'Shea; Ronaldo, Djemba-Djemba, Scholes, Giggs; Smith, Van Nistelrooy.

Referee: M De Santis (Italy).