Ferguson on defensive as critics write off Ferdinand

Manager insists support is all his centre-back needs to rediscover finest form / Owen to start in attack against CSKA tonight after Rooney becomes a father

Sir Alex Ferguson was back defending his underperforming centre-half Rio Ferdinand yesterday, saying that, despite evidence and comments to the contrary from within the game, there was "no depreciation in his qualities".

The Manchester United manager also offered a revealing insight into his man-management skills when he said Ferdinand was in need of an arm around his shoulder. Ferguson also admitted that Ferdinand has, as his agent Pini Zahavi said on Friday, been turning out when less than fit. "Playing with injuries is not the easiest thing to do, but of course we will try to get that right," the United manager said.

Ferguson felt the need to defend his player following suggestions this weekend from Graham Taylor that Ferdinand had "lost his legs" and that his travails for England in Ukraine and United at Anfield over the last month demonstrated that his loss of pace was irreversible. "I just don't think he is – or will be – the wonderful player he once was," Taylor said. But Ferguson countered yesterday saying there was "no discernible depreciation in his qualities, none for me at all".

Ferguson's initial attempts to shake Ferdinand out of his malaise led him to employ shock tactics two weeks ago, when he suggested that "with his ability and experience he should be coping" with the situations he was mishandling. But his manager evidently feels sympathy is now a requirement for his defender, 31 next Saturday, who may miss Sunday's visit to Stamford Bridge as well as tonight's Champions League tie with CSKA Moscow at Old Trafford with a calf injury.

"We've always had a situation where one of the star players hits a little blip and he is going to get criticism," Ferguson said. "That's all part of being a player at United. With Rio, no player likes to be criticised. They like to be loved and have arms around their shoulders at times, but he will come out of it, no question about that."

Reports of Ferdinand's fitness have been contradictory. In the spring, the player said that a back injury meant that he would have to do morning gym sessions for the rest of his career. But with England in Ukraine last month, he said that the extra gym sessions were behind him. Some eye-catching explanations of Ferdinand's injuries – Ferguson said he might have strained his back on a flight home from England's friendly in Amsterdam in August – have added to the enigma. The United manager, whose side can advance to the knockout stages by beating tonight's visitors, said he was not prepared to take risks with Ferdinand. "Calf injuries can be troublesome and, if you don't arrest them and give them proper treatment, you can end up with players playing games when they are not 100 per cent," he said.

Wes Brown and Jonny Evans will form United's central defensive duo, possibly in preparation for Chelsea with Nemanja Vidic still undergoing treatment on his own calf problem and suspended for Sunday. Darren Fletcher returns after his foot injury. Wayne Rooney's wife Coleen gave birth to their first child, Kai Wayne, at 2.20pm yesterday, though Ferguson may still prefer to give Michael Owen a second Champions League start and leave Rooney to his parenting. The decision may hinge on Dimitar Berbatov's reaction to treatment on an injured knee.

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