United front from Ferguson and Ronaldo over dive row

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The Independent Online

Cristiano Ronaldo is still learning English but when he finally masters the language it would be no surprise to hear him speak it with a Scottish accent. Between them yesterday the Portuguese international and Sir Alex Ferguson savaged Gareth Southgate and the football establishment they believe are offering Ronaldo no protection against the Premiership's bullies.

Tonight, United's Champions' League life hangs in the balance to Benfica yet again and defeat will mean a humiliating first-round exit for the second year in succession. Nevertheless, Ferguson went firmly on the offensive. Stung by Southgate branding Ronaldo a "diver" for his part in winning United a penalty on Saturday, Ferguson described the Middlesbrough manager as "naive" and Ronaldo cast doubt on Southgate's credentials as a player.

Although Ronaldo spent much of the press conference rolling his eyes and fiddling with his mobile phone, there was no doubt his presence was part of a plan from the man next to him. Ferguson was sending a clear message to tonight's German referee Herbert Fandel that his player was not to blame.

Asked about Southgate's comments, Ronaldo, who still needs a translator after three years in Manchester, was cutting. "He stopped playing last year and in my opinion he should try to understand football much better," he said. "I was trying to go past the keeper, I lost my balance and eventually the referee gave a penalty."

As Ronaldo answered, Ferguson could not contain himself. "Can I just add to that?" he interjected. The essence of Ferguson's complaint was that the intent of the challenge from Mark Schwarzer caused Ronaldo to lose his footing - just as Steven Gerrard had against Sheffield United on the first day of the season.

"I have watched it a million times and without question there is no way a player is going to give up the opportunity of scoring in an empty goal," Ferguson said. "He lost his balance completely. After two disgraceful tackles on him, he was sent off against Manchester City last year for intent [on Andy Cole]. Steven Gerrard got a penalty kick at the start of the season for intent. So interpretations are in the referee's hands. I think it was a penalty kick.

"Why the goalkeeper doesn't go for the ball with his hands, I have no idea. He tried to prevent him from scoring and he lost his balance because of that. To me it was a clear penalty."

Ferguson then turned his sights on the Middlesbrough manager. "Gareth Southgate is very naive, he's just a young manager," Ferguson said, "we'll have to give him a chance to settle in.

"We don't condone diving and Cristiano is well aware of that. But I have to say that the first thing that happened to Cristiano on Saturday was that he was hacked from behind and the referee did not book the player. It encourages opponents to keep kicking him. He is the most fouled player in the country.

"What is more serious in our game? Preventing the best players from playing or going on for three days about a dive that wasn't a dive?"

It was a year to the day yesterday that United's season reached its rockiest point when they lost 2-1 in Lisbon and exited the Champions' League at the group stages for the first time in a decade. "At the time you can imagine what the dressing room was like and our pride was terribly hurt," Ferguson said. "Sometimes out of bad comes good and the great test is to recover from the devastation of that defeat."

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Saha, Rooney.

Benfica (4-2-3-1): Quim; Nelson, Luisao, Ricardo Rocha, Leo; Petit, Katsouranis; Nuno Assis, Nuno Gomes, Simao; Miccoli.

Referee: H Fandel (Germany)

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