The Nick Townsend Column: For Ferguson the real question is no longer if, or even when, but how?

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The Independent Online

To begin with, the positives. Or perhaps we should refer to them as saving graces. After a night at the Stadium of Light which illuminated the deficiencies of his team and his management, at least Sir Alex Ferguson was spared the ignominy of demotion into the Uefa Cup, of seeing his team appearing on some satellite station and becoming the subject of pity and ridicule. Worse, winning the thing. Can you imagine anything more humiliating for Ferguson? For United, would-be aristocrats of Europe? And to think that some commentators referred to such a fate as "consolation".

At least, too, we were spared the defiant declaration: "Now we can concentrate on the League", even if the newly installed captain, Gary Neville, did allude to it a little too closely by admitting: "There can be no excuses now about fixture congestion, because we are going to have lots of free weeks to prepare for our domestic games."

And, finally, at least those initial dispatches from Florida did not convey the impression that the Glazer family wanted to "kick butt". Ferguson will not be sacked. Not now. Probably not at the end of the season even if, as appears likely, the champion-ship remains beyond his team's grasp. At least one of the American owners, Joel Glazer, who claims to have developed an affinity with United at the start of the Scot's reign, would temper any such inclinations by his brothers and father.

Ferguson's retirement will be his own decision; or, at least, it will certainly be portrayed that way. Such long and productive service makes him worthy not of an order to quit and a handsome payoff, but of a commemorative timepiece, something perhaps he should have consulted a couple of years ago after he announced his retirement and then made a retraction. It has created uncertainty and instability - what United least needed with the coming of Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho.

Inevitably, there have been cries ruing the departure of Roy Keane. Regardless of the fact that the once talismanic Irishman has been injured and in decline - certainly not the Keane of five years ago - he had apparently undermined the manager with his observations regarding the deficiencies of certain team-mates. In one sense, maybe Keane was correct. The qualities of some have been overstated - by Ferguson, by themselves - perhaps most notably Rio Ferdinand, the world's costliest defender.

Where Keano's advocates erred is in contending that he would have cajoled and exhorted more commitment from United on Wednesday. Was there actually any lack of conviction, of endeavour? To these eyes, it was an absence of adroitness from too many, and an immaturity on the part of some, that contributed most to the 2-1 defeat.

Many long-time United-watchers, such as the esteemed David Meek, once of the Manchester Evening News, who has seen it all from Matt Busby's tenure, have deemed that this European slump is all part of United's transitional period. That United's Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are still to an extent raw potential not fully realised. That may be true - although don't both players already boast considerable European, domestic and, indeed international experience? Yet what of the remainder, with Ruud van Nistelrooy, Neville, Ryan Giggs and maybe the industrious Alan Smith, honourable exceptions?

Can any United follower truly feel confident that their team have a surfeit of untapped talent emanating through to those areas of particular weakness, central defence and midfield?

In contrast, Arsenal could submit that, even with Patrick Vieira departed and Thierry Henry perhaps already preparing his luggage for a new European adventure, they have a whole raft of gifted youngsters bobbing into view over the horizon.

Reflecting on a night which bordered on the funereal, Glenn Hoddle made a particularly pertinent observation, asking whether for Rooney, it had been a case of right club, wrong time. There is much truth in that observation about the boy who went to Old Trafford to win the greatest prizes, imagining probably that it would be like shaking an apple tree in high season and waiting for fruit to fall.

Sometimes he looks around him as though he cannot believe that this particular orchard could yield such a desperately poor harvest.

It has long been the case that United desperately need to pare back dying branches and regraft with quality. It became even more evident on Wednesday night that Ferguson is not the man to do it.

A word to the cup dreamers: Sweden

Ignoring John Motson's attempts at a "commentary" which did battle against the World Cup draw presenters in Leipzig (and even if you could discern the statistics and facts hurled at you, you required an Enigma machine to decode them), Friday night was a gratifying one for England followers.

By yesterday morning, Sven Goran Eriksson's men had been installed alongside Argentina as second favourites behind Brazil, and, just a couple of months after the débâcle at Windsor Park, an eager anticipation is yet again on the wing.

Eriksson was his usual upbeat self. "It could have been worse," he said. His captain, David Beckham, was left to talk up England's chances, declaring that "we have the team and talent to beat anyone on our day".

They have, although the England faithful should perhaps remind themselves that the nation has been here many times before since 1966. Perhaps now may be the occasion to dowse the euphoria with a little cold reality. England's three rivals have already been dismissed. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, probably rightly so.

Yet, one can hardly say the same of Sweden, ranked 14th in the world and this nation's familiar foe, who topped the so-called Group of Death four years ago, when the quartet included Argentina, Nigeria and England. Henrik Larsson, Freddie Ljungberg and Zlatan Ibrahimovic may just give Beckham and Co something to contemplate, as might Paraguay, ranked 30th, who finished only six points behind Brazil and Argentina in the qualifying group.

Before England's opener on 10 June, Eriksson has several dilemmas to resolve, primarily, of course, how todeploy two of the most admired central midfielders in football, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.

In the meantime, the rest of us will simply be asking ourselves this question: if this really is the right team for the right occasion, is it being organised by the wrong coach?