Ferguson issue ducked as Queiroz defends United

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The Independent Online

The defending that was conspicuous by its absence in Lisbon belatedly came to Sir Alex Ferguson's aid yesterday as Manchester United declared the delicate issue of his future at the club strictly off limits while his assistant, Carlos Queiroz, incredulously spoke of the "great season" in store for the Old Trafford faithful.

United's despondent manager missed his usual Friday press briefing at the club's Carrington training ground to attend a funeral, but he must have left his infamous hairdryer behind given the amount of hot air expelled in his absence.

The task of previewing tomorrow's Premiership fixture with Everton fell upon Queiroz, whose own input is under increased scrutiny following the Champions' League exit that has deprived United of European football in the second half of the season for the first time since 1995 and its new owners, the Glazer family, of the potential to earn £15m by reaching May's final in Paris. Before proceedings commenced, it was explained that any question pertaining to either Ferguson or Queiroz's position at the club would bring the press conference to an immediate end although, in retrospect, the Portuguese coach may have been safer extolling his manager's virtues than heightening the sense of dismay amongst the club's support.

The affable Queiroz was at pains to explain how United had the capacity to salvage their season, an argument supported by progress to second place in the Premiership, despite a catalogue of injury problems, and to the quarter-finals of the Carling Cup following five consecutive domestic victories. However, it is the European Cup, "the trophy United and I coveted above all others", as wrote Ferguson on the first page of his autobiography, that has marked the club's decline in recent years and prompted the alarming assertion from Queiroz yesterday that the team deserved to beat Benfica and possessed "the best players in the world".

Queiroz said: "It was a huge disappointment and we all share the same feeling of sadness but we still have the same trust and belief. We still believe it will be a great season for us. The Benfica game showed that a competition can turn inside 15 minutes but we still have the belief and confidence to turn this bad moment into a huge, positive run until the end of the season. We are still in a great position to challenge for the championship. Despite an abnormal injury situation we are second in the League and with the FA Cup and Carling Cup we can fight for three trophies until the end of the season. I am sure that at the end we can prove the quality of the team and our preparation.

"We accept the responsibility for not being in the second stage but now is not the time to judge our season. You must judge it when it is finished. This is not a time for explanation, excuses or for pointing fingers, just the time to move forward. We know what we are doing."

When it was put to the former Real Madrid coach that failure to qualify from one of the weakest groups in the competition was indicative of United's diminishing returns in the European Cup since the triumph in 1999 rather than an isolated upset, he said: "That is your interpretation but this is mine. I don't agree that it was an easy group. It can be easier when you have two teams who do well in the group but Villarreal, Benfica and Lille are all good teams. We didn't get the result we wanted and we don't escape from the responsibility, but we know what to do and where we should go.

"This is our way and it is going to be a great season for us. The Champions' League is past now. Now the future is important and we have to rebound and fight for these three trophies."