Defiant Ferguson refuses to explain himself as Queiroz turns on critics

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The Independent Football

Ferguson was surrounded by recollections of United's last epic encounter with Benfica as he faced the mass media for the first time since being subjected to vitriolic abuse from some supporters on Saturday. Pictures of the 1968 European Cup final triumph over the Portuguese side, who visit Old Trafford in the Champions' League tonight, did not prompt Ferguson's performance in the Europa Suite, however, as he deliberately indulged in nostalgia at the expense of his problems in the present.

The United manager responded to the opening question about the Blackburn defeat with an analysis of Sir Matt Busby's achievement in winning England's first European Cup a decade after the Munich air disaster and spoke at length on how, in his opinion, the Champions' League had overtaken the World Cup in terms of entertainment, excitement and quality. When the final question of the press conference returned to the jeers that accompanied him down the Old Trafford tunnel on Saturday and asked whether he understood the fans' frustrations, Ferguson's decorum evaporated. "I'm not going into that. Finished? Thank you," he said, and left.

Ferguson had made his position clear before the final interrogator stepped forward, saying "Listen, I'm not going into anything about myself, I am talking about the game tomorrow. That was made clear. This is about Benfica, OK? The Benfica match is important to me. We are doing a good job in getting the players back from the defeat on Saturday," he stated, although his stance will do little to ease the alienation felt among many supporters.

That is likely to intensify now that Queiroz, the man credited with convincing Ferguson to abandon 4-4-2 and persist with a 4-3-2-1 formation that is costing United goals, style and backing, dismissed the opinions of the disillusioned faithful.

Queiroz, in an interview with Portuguese newspaper O Jogo, insisted United had reverted to a more traditional system once Wayne Rooney was introduced against Blackburn and paid the consequence. "Football is a game of opinions, we do not play with one up front, nor two but with three," he said; "People have been crying out for us to use a 4-4-2 formation and in the Blackburn game we played with a 4-4-2 system for the first time and lost! We tried out the system that the fans had been demanding ... and we lose. That is why football is a game in which imagination and, on many occasions, stupidity, have no limits."

Queiroz added that Saturday's defeat was "an accident", although it was one that Ferguson, in private if not in public, accepts must be addressed. The manager said: "Of course we don't like losing games, but we have had to face these problems in the past and we must face them again some time, today is that day."

United's failings in front of goal have not only been confined to the Premiership. Ferguson's side have not scored or won in the Champions' League for four matches, and entertain a Benfica side that heads Group D courtesy of an opening round victory against Lille without the suspended Rooney. John O'Shea will undergo a late fitness test before Ferguson finalises his system, with the United manager, now in his 11th Champions' League campaign, insisting the tournament has become the finest in world football.

He said: "It is a nice break from the grind of the Premiership and it is a nice challenge to the players because they are playing against the best in the world. All the best players in the world are now playing in European football. It is a bigger tournament than the World Cup now. It used to be enough just to think you could play Real Madrid, but now you could play Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus and AC Milan all in the one season.

"It is better than the World Cup in terms of entertainment. In my opinion, the last good World Cup was in 1986, they have been disappointing since then. That is a long time ago, whereas in the Champions' League in the last few seasons there have been some fantastic games and unusual results. That leads me to think that this is the tournament now."

Manchester United (probable 4-3-2-1): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Richardson; Fletcher, Smith, Scholes; Park, Ronaldo; Van Nistelrooy.

Benfica (probable 4-2-3-1): Moreira; Nelson, Luisao, Anderson, Rocha; Petit, Fernandes; Karagounis, Miccoli, Simao; Gomes.

Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).