After a bad week for another of his former players-turned-manager, Sir Alex Ferguson was not slow to offer paternalistic support to Alex McLeish, whose job security at Villa Park was not improved by a fourth defeat in seven games, even taking into account Villa's bad record against Manchester United, which now stands at one win in their last 32 meetings in the Premier League.
"He just said you've got to keep going," McLeish said when asked whether the man for whom he was all-conquering Aberdeen's defensive rock had offered words of encouragement.
Ferguson may care about his boys but he still likes to beat them. In Premier League matches against teams managed by former Ferguson players, United have lost only five from 69, the last winning apprentice being Mark Hughes, whose Blackburn won 4-3 at Ewood Park in 2006. The master is not without problems of his own. United need to avoid defeat in Basle on Wednesday to be sure of staying in the Champions League, while four wins from five in the Premier League looks less impressive knowing that while three have been away from home all have been 1-0. In both goal difference and goals scored, United trail City by 17.
In their last seven league matches, United have scored only once, four of the goals from Xavier Hernandez, whose ankle injury in the opening minutes left Ferguson dismayed. The Mexican will not travel to Switzerland and is unlikely to play again until the New Year.
It leaves Ferguson with a pool of strikers comprising Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen, both injured, Danny Welbeck, whose 11 minutes on Saturday were his first in a month, Wayne Rooney, who has not scored in eight Premier League games, and Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf, who lack match sharpness. Just as well that of United's next seven domestic opponents before the Arsenal trip on 22 January, all bar one is in the bottom half and five are in the bottom six. Another positive, Ferguson said, is Saturday's form. "We missed some good chances and that can cost you but we had a good rhythm and the good thing from the run of 1-0 wins is that we have increased our concentration away from home."
They needed it. After Phil Jones, deployed in midfield until Rio Ferdinand was withdrawn for the last 36 minutes, had put United ahead by deftly volleying home Nani's cross in a one-sided first half, Villa had them defending for much of the remainder.
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