On a day when it had been made known that a distinctly subdued Sir Alex Ferguson would not be discussing Alan Wiley and his fitness – "I know you're an intelligent boy but don't go too far," he growled when the faintest hint of that topic cropped up – it seemed like a good tactical ploy to suggest that talk of Rio Ferdinand missing out on a World Cup squad place was far-fetched.
But the Manchester United manager, usually so fiercely protective of his players in the face of negative commentaries, offered his first hint of dissatisfaction with his 30-year-old prospective club captain, baldly declaring that there were competitors for his England jersey if his form did not pick up. "Well, he has to get good form," Ferguson declared. "That's an important issue for the [England] coach. I think probably in [England's] defence you've maybe got more options than other positions. He will need to get his form right."
Ferguson's prognosis is pessimistic in the extreme since West Ham's Matthew Upson, who has deputised for Ferdinand more than any other central defender, is not in his class. But that is beside the point. The United manager's words seem designed to shake Ferdinand out of the malaise which has beset him after a period of sustained injury, with the defender featuring in just 20 of United's last 42 games for United and four times for England in the last year.
His dire misjudgement of a high ball in Dnepropetrovsk seven days ago, which contributed to the stranded goalkeeper Robert Green being dismissed against Ukraine, was not good enough, Ferguson declared. "With his ability and experience he should be coping with that type of thing," he said. "I'm sure he's taken it on board, the criticism he's had. We all go through little phases where we need to correct our game or make a step, take a step up and I'm sure he'll do that. Games will definitely help, there's no question about that."
Ferdinand is a defender blessed with such time on the ball that his errors can look like casual over-confidence, the misplaced ball against Manchester City which allowed Martin Petrov possession foremost among them, though it was Craig Bellamy's subsequent ability to outpace Ferguson and score which offered more grounds for concern. "I don't know if it's over-confidence. I think there's always been a casual part of Rio's game since he was a kid. It's a casualness that's been an advantage to him at times," Ferguson said. "In his younger days it was a weakness but in his time with us his development and maturity has brought about some consistently outstanding form."
Ferguson appears to believe that a lack of game time, rather than damage to the body, is the problem for a defender who will have plenty of opportunity to demonstrate something against the aerial threat of Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford today. Yet the contradictory messages about Ferdinand's fitness have been puzzling for some time. Ferguson reiterated yesterday a point Ferdinand made in Ukraine that his extra early morning gym sessions on core body work at Carrington, which he put himself through when troubled with his back last season, were now at an end. Yet in the spring, the player suggested that he would need to maintain the regime for the rest of his career. Pain, he insisted, was something he now had to live with.
Ferguson's eye-catching dissection of Capello's likely World Cup squad included the improbable suggestion that Michael Owen will be among the strikers, with Wayne Rooney, Carlton Cole and Peter Crouch the certs. Owen may well get his chance today, with Rooney's calf injury possibly ruling him out until next Sunday's visit to Anfield, according to the manager. Dimitar Berbatov, another slight doubt with his girlfriend Elena Shtilianov due to give birth two days ago, may partner him. Edwin van der Sar returns from a hand injury for his first game of the season.
Ferguson clearly had the Wiley case on his mind, with Gary Neville taking up the task of defending Ferguson for his comments about the referee on the day that the manager's explanation of his conduct reached the Football Association. "The manager has taken a bit of flak for suggesting that Alan Wiley wasn't fit enough to take charge of the [Sunderland] game [but] I did feel he was taking quite a long time to book players," Neville said. "Managers and players can't win. The fans and the public want honesty, but the FA throw the book at us if we give honest comments. I don't think [Ferguson] was trying to divert attention from the players; he was quite honest that we were not at our best."
The United manager's honesty in another interview which has come to light raises – intentionally or not – new questions about the viability of clubs acquired by big spenders. "I think there is an awful lot of expenditure and you say to yourself, 'Where is it going to end?' That is exactly what was happening in the business world two years ago. There were warning signs and everyone knew there were, yet they carried on because it was so easy to access loans." Manchester City appear to be the target of his observations, which apply equally to the Glazer family and their highly leveraged buy-out.
But Ferdinand is the source of the most searching questions this weekend. "I don't think he's had any spell like this since he joined the club, that's for sure," Ferguson said. "So it's an unusual experience for him. He will get through it, I'm sure of that."
With or without Roo: How United cope without Wayne
*Wayne Rooney is absent for this afternoon's visit of Bolton with a calf strain, after also missing England's midweek victory over Belarus with the same problem. But Sir Alex Ferguson's side do not fare a lot worse when the forward is missing. The 23-year-old has missed 59 of United's 302 matches since August 2004, and the Red Devils have lost just six.
United with Rooney:
P: 243 W: 158 D: 50 L: 35 Goals: 101 Win %: 65
P: 59 W: 41 D:12 L: 6 Win %: 69
*Manchester United's defeats without Rooney
8 Dec 04
Fenerbahce (a): 3-0 (Champions League)
19 Aug 07
Manchester City (a): 1-0 (Premier League)
24 Nov 07
Bolton Wanderers (a): 1-0 (Premier League)
26 Sept 07
Coventry City (h): 0-2 (Carling Cup)
29 Dec 07
West Ham United (a): 2-1 (Premier League)
10 Feb 08
Manchester City (h): 1-2 (Premier League)
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