Ferguson makes retreat look like escape to victory

If ever a man could trip up in a pigsty and come up smelling sweet, it is Sir Alex Ferguson. A smile as broad as the Stretford End lit up his face as he left the Old Trafford pitch yesterday and who could blame him? Even his defeats take on the uncanny appearance of score draws.

Ferguson is likely to withdraw his court case against John Magnier and J P McManus this week, but if he is suffering over what he might have gained from Rock Of Gibraltar's stud fees, his bank manager is likely to be beaming as up to £3m is deposited over the next few years by way of settlement.

We could all happily suffer reverses like that, but then Ferguson is blessed with having the sort of problems that other people would endure. Particularly football managers.

His Manchester United rearguard is a mess, he is so short of defenders that Ryan Giggs finished the match at left back yesterday and his best goalscorer is still smarting at being left out of the starting line-up last week. Yet Ferguson can contemplate playing in the Champions' League against Porto on Tuesday, knowing his side are third in the Premiership and in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

And, true to form, the disgruntled striker at Fulham eight days ago, Ruud van Nistelrooy, was the man who put the London side out of the FA Cup yesterday with two goals to take his tally this season to 26. Game, rest and match to Ferguson.

"Managers and players disagree about these things," Van Nistelrooy said, his omission at Loftus Road still an irritant. "but I have played more games than the rest of the squad this season so deep down I agree with him." All shoulders to the corporate message, but when pressed, the Dutchman added: "It's not nice to be rested." Ferguson, of course, was in the position of strength and could dismiss even hints of criticism. "Ruud picks himself most of the time," he said with a twinkle in his eye that said Manager 1, Star Player 0. "He could have scored four but that's what you expect of him."

What you do not expect from Manchester United is a defence so porous Old Trafford is holding its collective breath every time the ball goes over the halfway line. It may be down to part stupidity (Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville) and part misfortune (Mikaël Silvestre and Quinton Fortune) but Ferguson was without his potential first-choice back four yesterday and it showed.

Ferguson put that down to tension being transmitted from the crowd but it was not edginess that allowed Roy Keane to be dispossessed by the corner flag and it was not nerves that propelled Wes Brown into a lunge that nearly took Luis Boa Morte's leg off. Penalties for visiting sides at Old Trafford are as rare as Tony Blair's Christmas cards to Claire Short, but the referee had an easy decision to make.

But if United's defence creaked at all times it looked rock solid compared to the closing 15 minutes when Eric Djemba-Djemba replaced Keane and, instead of joining the back four, lined up in midfield. Paul Scholes looked mystified, John O'Shea did not know where he was supposed to play, and it required two visits to the touchline by Mike Phelan before the message got to the best left-winger in Britain that he had to play at left-back.

"Ryan Gigg is a marvellous defender," Ferguson said by way of explanation. "He's a terrific tackler, he's quick and he's good in the air. I could have put Eric Djemba-Djemba on the right and pulled Phil Neville over to left-back but Ryan is naturally left-footed so I thought it was the right thing to do."

Whether Ferguson's decision would have stood the test of the criticism in the light of a replay is another matter but when Boa Morte cut in from Giggs' flank and aimed a low shot towards United's goal after 88 minutes, the most likely result was a goal for the visitors. Instead, Tim Howard dived and got enough of a touch on the ball to divert it away from Fulham's preying forwards. Ferguson had got away with it... but then he usually does.