Ferguson hails fighting spirit

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The Independent Online

Once more Manchester United's unrivalled capacity for late goals not only saw them through to the second group stages of the Champions' League but added a thick gloss to a performance their manager described as "good but not brilliant".

Sir Alex Ferguson's smile, his jokes and his offers of help to the Greek translator were signs of relief and appreciation of a side whose relentless pursuit of victory remains there most compelling quality. "It's in the nature of the way we do things," Ferguson reflected. "In the last eight years I don't think there has been a side to touch us for late goals, although Deportivo have done well, and not just against us."

Despite two defeats against Deportivo La Coruña in which they were both outplayed and out-thought, United qualified with rather more aplomb than they managed last season when but for a shocking late miss by Dynamo Kiev's Georgi Demetradze, Ferguson would have been competing for the Uefa Cup ­ a trophy he has never won and one he has no intention of lifting. They also, incidentally, avoided their worst sequence of results at Old Trafford since the President of the United States was dealing with a crisis in Cuba rather than in Afghanistan.

With a penalty missed, a post struck and time evaporating into the mild October evening, it seemed Ferguson's fate would be decided in the bleak coalfields of northern France, against a Lille side whose combative qualities are not to be underestimated.

Instead, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, as so often, came to the rescue, although Ferguson did not concede that the policy of using Ruud van Nistelrooy as a lone striker in Europe had failed, despite the fact that United were only in total command once two forwards were on the pitch.

Paul Scholes, whom Ferguson's assistant, Jim Ryan, said might be "intimidated" by the one-up system was again relatively ineffectual. Instead of playing off Van Nistelrooy, as the tactics board would have suggested, he lurked deep and rather anonymously for a man who has scored more European goals for United than anyone bar Andy Cole.

Ferguson had considered playing the Norwegian from the start, admitting afterwards he "erred on the side of caution". He remarked: "You can use this system knowing that you can bring on someone like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, knowing that if he gets his chance, he is one of the best players in the world for the ball to land to.

"We can adapt the system so easily, but even when we were playing one up front, there was some great movement and passing in the middle of the park. In the first half, we created four clear chances and in the second half we had a penalty saved, hit the post and forced their keeper to make a great save."

When United took on Deportivo last week, Van Nistelrooy's two goals were eclipsed by the eccentricities of Fabien Barthez. Last night the man in black remained in the shadows, faced by an Olympiakos side which, while they attempted to attack, seemed to know they had not won in 15 previous attempts away from Athens and were not likely to start now.

The penalty miss was an aberration, but the Dutchman, whom Ferguson described as "potentially the best centre-forward in Europe", not only won the penalty himself, he created Solskjaer's opener and scored his third Champions' League goal for United.

"He's a real centre-forward, in the old-fashioned sense of the word," said his manager. "He gets into space, has great body strength and can protect the ball, which is something he learned as a young player... He is one of the best, if not already the best strikers in Europe."

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