Fergie: 'We won't feel sorry for ourselves'

The Manchester derby: Bullish United manager plays down health concerns and fears of a red empire in decline
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The Independent Online

As Manchester United's hordes drifted disconsolately away from Old Trafford on Tuesday evening, a Uefa poster for the Champions' League final in Gelsenkirchen was flapping in the wind by the directors' entrance. It represented a forlorn symbol of hopes dashed by the late Porto goal that excluded Sir Alex Ferguson's team from their accustomed place in the competition's last eight.

As Manchester United's hordes drifted disconsolately away from Old Trafford on Tuesday evening, a Uefa poster for the Champions' League final in Gelsenkirchen was flapping in the wind by the directors' entrance. It represented a forlorn symbol of hopes dashed by the late Porto goal that excluded Sir Alex Ferguson's team from their accustomed place in the competition's last eight.

By Friday all traces had been removed, and at the training centre three miles away minds were being concentrated instead on lunchtime today at the City of Manchester Stadium. The first derby at the new ground is tasty enough in its way, though rather pale ale in a week when port wine and Lyon burgundy should have been the flavours to savour.

Ferguson was understandably keen to talk it up, in a relaxed, jaunty fashion also meant to imply there was nothing of concern in the news that he has had a pacemaker fitted three months after being treated for a heart flutter. Since then Manchester City have been beaten twice at Old Trafford, by slightly harsh margins of 3-1 and 4-2, but other opponents have proved more resistant than Kevin Keegan's paper-thin defence. Consequently, a three-point lead at the top of the Premiership has been transformed into Arsenal's current advantage of 12, making victory today all the more imperative.

Head and shoulders above all other reasons for that state of affairs - just as he is in the centre of United's defence - is the case of Rio Ferdinand. Never mind the cost of Costinha's goal on Wednesday, following up a free-kick as John O'Shea stood flat-footed; how expensive is Ferdinand's memory lapse of last 23 September proving to be? United can only hope for a reduction in the bill when his appeal against an eight-month suspension is heard later this week.

The England defender's absence has been compounded by further suspensions (Gary Neville and Roy Keane), injuries (Mikaël Silvestre and Quinton Fortune) and poor form (Wes Brown). Criticism of transfer policy over the past two windows centres on the failure to invest in that area of the squad, while buying a glut of young midfielders for the mid- to long-term, who might one day compensate for David Beckham's enforced departure.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been chosen ahead of Beckham in some of the biggest matches en route to last season's championship and Champions' League quarter-final, so his serious knee injury was an unfortunate blow. Lack of other adequate understudies in midfield and attack was exposed when Ferguson chose to rest two of his best players in each of the League matches against Fulham, resulting in the loss of five critical points. The assistant manager Carlos Queiroz was not replaced for nine months - until Ferguson met Walter Smith at a recent funeral, risking a pattern under which the No 2 leaves and a successful season is followed by a barren one. Then there have been other distractions off the field like the loss of the chief executive to Chelsea, regular takeover talk and the manager's spat with Magnier and Co, whom he appeared to underestimate as badly as Fulham.

Inside the camp, responsibility is accepted on some of these counts, disputed on others. In the wake of Tuesday's defeat, Gary Neville, who tends to take on the role of His Master's (Manager's) Voice when Keane is absent, was annoyed to find the word "shambles" being attributed to him when he was using it to describe other peoples' perception, but he later admitted: "We've just started conceding silly goals and it's eroded a little bit of confidence. We just have to be a little more controlled and composed. I don't think even in two weeks' time we'll have the same problems. I've played alongside Wes Brown for two games against Porto and he's been brilliant. Don't forget he'd been out for nine months. Get over it. We've got a lot to play for, starting on Sunday and I'm just devastated at missing the game - getting sent off [for head-butting City's Steve McManaman in the FA Cup] is looking a more and more stupid thing to have done."

As for events off the pitch affecting performance on it, Neville believes: "There's nothing that happens that ever affects us in terms of boardroom level, we're too focused for that. We've seen enough of it over the years to know that things do happen at a big club like United but that never gets to the players, the manager protects us brilliantly."

"Get over it" sounds very much as if it has been handed down from that quarter as the mantra of the week. Ferguson says as much in different words: "If you look at us over the years, we've recovered well from bad defeats. My job is to make sure the players don't feel sorry for themselves. I can't allow that to permeate the club."

When the possibility of an era ending is gently raised, the manager's response comes straight from Sergeant Mainwaring's "don't want any of that talk here" admonition of Corporal Wilson. "We had all that before when we lost 5-0 to Newcastle and 6-3 to Southampton. We've always had that here. High expectations are a big thing and we need players who can handle that. That's part of it, losing a game for Manchester United and doing something about it. We don't need anyone reminding us what's needed at this club."

What is needed right now is a win over City, who Ferguson believes will stay in the Premiership despite what he kindly calls their "blip" (one victory in 16 League games is quite a blip). Beating the old enemy for the third time in as many months would restore some lost kudos in Manchester if not continental Europe.

"When's the draw?" Ferguson asked at one stage on Friday morning, as wistfully as he no doubt felt watching Real Madrid play Bayern Munich on Wednesday night. Alas, that is all gone for another season. The Champions' League, like the answer to the conundrum of United's season, is once more blowing in the wind.

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