Ferguson eager to stabilise United's 'rocking ship'

Manager sees chance to provide relief from poor domestic form
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The Independent Football

The Boavista coach, Jaime Pacheco, crossed himself when told he had drawn Manchester United and Bayern Munich in the second phase of the Champions' League, but it will be in the Old Trafford boardroom where the praying will be most fervent tonight.

Until the collapse which saw them hopelessly outplayed by Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea to precipitate the club's biggest crisis in a decade, it would have seemed inconceivable United could fear a team who had yet to win away in the competition. However, should Boavista perform as well at Old Trafford as they did at Anfield in September when forcing a 1-1 draw, then Sir Alex Ferguson's farewell season might be spluttering to a conclusion before December is out.

The Manchester United manager has already conceded that after suffering five Premiership defeats, he is unlikely to bow out with the championship; a frustration Sir Matt Busby had to accept in 1969. In this context his pursuit of a second European Cup takes on an even greater urgency.

Certainly, it has been on a sounder footing than their attempt to win a fourth successive Premiership title. Fabien Barthez's ghastly errors in virtually handing victory to Deportivo La Coruña were followed up by a solid 3-0 win over Olympiakos and a show of impressive solidity in Munich.

"We have an opportunity to stabilise our rocking ship and win a breathing space that will allow us to get to grips with the problems that have set us back in the Premiership," said Ferguson, knowing he will not have to compete in the Champions' League again until February. "To have lost five games so early in the season is my worst start in the Premiership so clearly there is no disguising the seriousness of our position in terms of retaining the title. It is not impossible but we must hit top form quickly."

Again, however, the fears are in defence. The news that Wes Brown may be unlikely to play again this season after suffering another knee injury means that only Laurent Blanc of United's specialist centre-backs is available. The experiment of using Roy Keane in the heart of defence backfired disastrously against Chelsea on Saturday; as Terry Venables pointed out, Keane is probably the best central midfielder in Britain, but the United captain is a long, long way from being the best centre-half.

However, a hamstring injury to Ronnie Johnsen and the sale of Jaap Stam, which seems likely to be remembered as the moment when Ferguson's grip began to be loosened, means he will either have to continue the experiment and abandon his policy of using Ruud van Nistelrooy as a lone striker, or push Mickael Silvestre into the middle of the back four and employ Keane as a sweeper in front of it. Since this worked well in Munich it is likely to be the latter.

Ferguson revealed there had been inquests at Old Trafford into problems, many of which he confessed, "were of our own making", adding: "Manchester United are not unbreakable. We have no divine rights to expect football miracles indefinitely. I have never shirked a challenge because you know that the real test is handling this kind of situation."

It is a pity Ferguson decided to make these lucid comments in the match programme and not at a shambolic press conference, where most radio and TV journalists were excluded from an official Uefa event.

Pacheco has long adopted Ferguson's bunker mentality to take Boavista from the obscurity of being Oporto's second club to Portuguese champions, becoming the first team since 1946 to break the hold Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Porto had on the title.

"Some sports commentators are against Boavista," he said. "When someone poor starts to do well, they are accused. People say their money comes from drugs or dirty deals." These are criticisms that have never been levelled at United, not even from a media they regard with almost paranoid suspicion.

Manchester United (probable: 4-1-4-1): Barthez; G Neville, Blanc, Silvestre, Irwin; Keane; Beckham, Veron, Scholes, Fortune; Van Nistelrooy.

Boavista (probable: 4-3-3): Ricardo; Frechaut, Paulo Turra, Pedro Emanuel, Erivan; Petit, Alexandre Goulart, Jorge Silva; Sanchez, Duda, Martelinho.

Referee: Antonio Jesus Lopez Nieto (Spain).

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