Ferguson defiant as the predators gather

As rivals and a tycoon turn on heat, United manager preaches patience amid the lost chances
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The Independent Football

No surrender, no panic. As Manchester United supporters made defiant noises in one of Old Trafford's opulent suites on Friday about the prospect of being taken over by a quiet American, Sir Alex Ferguson was announcing a few miles away at the club's Carrington training ground that he is not yet ready to give in to equally predatory French and Portuguese rivals based in London.

No surrender, no panic. As Manchester United supporters made defiant noises in one of Old Trafford's opulent suites on Friday about the prospect of being taken over by a quiet American, Sir Alex Ferguson was announcing a few miles away at the club's Carrington training ground that he is not yet ready to give in to equally predatory French and Portuguese rivals based in London.

Since the huge psychological boost of victory over Arsène Wenger's Arsenal three weeks ago, the pattern of United's work has changed to encouraging midweek cup performances followed by disappointment in the Premiership. That sequence needs to be broken this afternoon against Newcastle's Out-Of-Tune Army. The record may show only one defeat in 18 matches since losing on the opening day to Chelsea, but United's high proportion of draws means that Jose Mourinho's side have been disappearing into the distance, closely followed by Arsenal. The inability to break through Manchester City's road-block in a one-sided derby last Sunday, hard on the heels of an unfortunate loss at Portsmouth, adds up to United's worst start in any Premiership campaign.

Once Wayne Rooney was signed in late August - a move prompted by Newcastle's speculative offer for him - Ferguson was convinced that his squad would be in good shape to challenge. By the time the boy wonder was fit, however, they had already dropped three points to Chelsea and six more in unexpected failures to exert Lancastrian supremacy against Blackburn, Everton and Bolton. In European games, Rooney's hat-trick on debut against Fenerbahce and then Ruud van Nistelrooy's quartet against Sparta Prague have exposed defensive limitations in sides bold enough to come forward at Old Trafford.

Failing to score in three of the four most recent Premiership games tells a confusingly different tale. There is already a daunting gap at the top of the table, but on Friday Ferguson was quick to bridle at the suggestion that it represented a bridge too far: "I didn't say it was beyond us, I said it wasn't championship form last week [against City] and it wasn't. We need to concentrate on getting our game right and once we do, we'll win games, there's no doubt about that.

"All we need now is a little break. There was a 25-minute period where we had 85 per cent possession of the ball last week, which is phenomenal. I've never known a derby game with that kind of possession. They had one shot, and I think [Steve] McManaman was playing for time, he put it right in the terracing. There were a lot of pluses: two shots cleared off the line, two clear penalties turned down. It was a good performance, but we do need to take those chances. That's the difference between championship form and where we are at the moment."

As Sir Alf Ramsey once put it, in one of his more philosophical moments: "The missing of chances is one of the mysteries of life." The way £66m worth of strikers have been spurning them has certainly mystified Ferguson: "It's amazing. We do finishing every day in training, always have, that's the bemusing part of it. You hope it transmits itself into the necessary goals. In fairness, for the last 12 or 13 years, our goalscoring record is good. So we're not going to start panicking about it, just be patient.

"The atmosphere and training's terrific, they're a good bunch of boys with good character. Those are the things you need. You draw trust out of that and that's why I'm not lying in my bed not sleeping. I trust these lads and they want to put it right. Wednesday, again [against Crystal Palace] we had 78 per cent possession of the ball. There's no other team in the country can do that."

The bonus in that game was that Louis Saha did manage to put the ball in the net, setting up a comfortable 2-0 victory, which might earn him a start alongside Van Nistelrooy today now that the latter is available after suspension, desperate to score his first Premiership goal of the season from open play.

"Louis came alive, he was a handful," Ferguson said. "I wouldn't like to play against him." He is banking on Newcastle's leaky defence feeling the same way; and, told that their manager, Graeme Souness, had said it would be foolish to write United off just yet, added triumph-antly: "You should listen to him!"

Only 11 goals from the whole squad in 12 games would be an embarrassing statistic even if Ferguson had not already blown the whole of next summer's transfer budget on Rooney. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, the club's chief executive, David Gill, shaken by Malcolm Glazer effectively vetoing the re-election of three directors, was confirming that it will be necessary to ship out some players before any further recruitment can take place, and that newcomers will have to accept a refined pay structure with more emphasis on bonuses. There was no criticism for Ferguson's judgement, however, in refusing to pay as much as Chelsea for the outstanding PSV Eindhoven winger Arjen Robben; and Gill was positive in his support for the manager, who begins a new one-year rollover contract in June: "He's motivated, he's fit, he's got Carlos [Queiroz, his assistant manager] back, and so we're very confident with that. I think he should continue for many years."

Ferguson, 62, will continue to preach patience, as one of the lessons he has learnt over the course of almost 1,000 matches with United (he reaches four figures against Lyon in nine days' time). "You have to use your experience in these situations," he said. "We've faced it all before. I can remember Newcastle beating us 5-0, Chelsea beating us at Old Trafford and Southampton beating us 6-3. There was a three-hour programme on Radio 5 Live on 'the demise of Manchester United'."

If the producers happen to be considering an updated version, the implication was, a proud Scot would send them home tae think again. Glazer, some business observers believe, may yet prove more resilient.

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