Ferguson's system to blame for nightmare

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The Independent Football

It was with some strange symmetry that Ruud van Nistelrooy was blundering from the penalty spot for Real Madrid on Tuesday night at almost exactly the same time as Louis Saha was choking in the same circumstances in Glasgow. So the old Dutchman is not infallible after all but as he notched his 51st career Champions' League goal the same night, he will not be dwelling on it too much.

In happier times, Sir Alex Ferguson would always say of Van Nistelrooy that he was impervious to the confidence-sapping effects of missing goalscoring chances - a quality that could not be attributed to Saha this week. If Neil Lennon's report of his conversation with Gary Neville was accurate then it seemed that when it came to the crucial moment, Saha was still replaying the chance he had blown earlier waiting for an offside flag that never came.

Neville has certainly never seemed the kind of player given to unburdening his anxieties to the opposition and seeing as Lennon spent most of the aftermath of the penalty award trying hard - and eventually succeeding - to get himself booked, it is difficult to see when their chat took place. If United's amateur psychologist was correct then it says little for the faith that Saha inspires in his own team-mates.

The man himself was contrite at Parkhead on Tuesday night, he admitted that he felt "terrible". "It's one of those things," Saha said. "I've said sorry to the lads in the dressing room but a thousand sorrys won't change anything. It was a difficult night for Manchester United but I have to admit I am really sorry for my performance. I need to recover from that."

With the hauteur of the natural goalscorer, Van Nistelrooy was never one for apologies - not even when he struck the Arsenal bar with a late penalty that would have won United the game at Old Trafford in September 2003.

So who was really responsible on Tuesday night? A striker who is dealing with the unique pressure of leading the line for United or a manager that insists on playing 4-5-1 even when, in Wayne Rooney, he has a player with three goals in his last two appearances for club and country?

Only with 20 minutes left did Ferguson finally abandon his formation and give Rooney the scope to play alongside Saha in an orthodox 4-4-2 system, long after United had put Celtic on the ropes but searched in vain for the defining haymaker. It smacked of the old cautiousness counselled by Ferguson's assistant, Carlos Queiroz when, on nights like these, United's attacking instincts are just begging to be released.

The season before last, the 4-5-1 formation became a serious issue among United supporters who came to implore their team to attack when, even at home, they were playing a midfield of five. Against Milan in the first leg of their last-16 match in February 2005, they played 4-5-1 at Old Trafford and lost to Hernan Crespo's late winner before bowing out in Italy. That was Milan, the eventual finalists, but on Tuesday night, with respect, it was Celtic.

"We have to get our minds right for Sunday," Ryan Giggs said. "We probably need a couple of days' rest to get ourselves ready because it's a massive game." But what kind of side will Ferguson pick to play the Premiership champions? Last November he chose four in midfield with Rooney behind Van Nistelrooy and won the match, this time at least he has some certainty about Jose Mourinho's team.

It is barely conceivable that Mourinho will not field his new gang of four - Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele, Michael Essien and Michael Ballack - a combination of staggering power and directness but little width. Last season at Old Trafford, Chelsea played with five in midfield - including Damien Duff and Joe Cole - while United stuck with four. Does Ferguson have enough confidence in Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick together in the centre or will he have to compensate with an extra man? It is hard to believe that United feel they need to play five in midfield at home, especially as that is such a regular complaint when less-celebrated Premiership opponents line up that way at Old Trafford.

Still, when the day cleared over Parkhead yesterday it was much less of a mystery how United failed to beat Celtic and now face another Champions' League play-off. The 4-5-1 system, after all is designed to stop you losing games, rather than to win them.

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