Ferguson to stay on despite costly exit in Europe

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson, as a stalwart Labour man, will revile the analogy, yet one of the internet message-board critiques of Manchester United's demise in the Champions' League characterised them almost as the football equivalent of the Tory party. The 2-1 defeat by Benfica was, said the correspondent, "the fading wheezing of a dying beast".

Harsh for a team who beat Chelsea, won their past four domestic fixtures and sit second in the Premiership. But within context of the £3m to £15m United lost by finishing bottom of their first-round group, such results are as by-election victories next to winning a general election.

Benfica brought out a large, live eagle before Wednesday's match, releasing it to soar above the pitch before it returned to the reward of a morsel of rabbit. As United trudged off it was easy to picture vultures circling, but sources close to the Glazer family distanced the owners from speculation about a knee-jerk sacking of the manager yesterday. Despite the loss of revenue from Europe, they said that Ferguson would have funds to buy players during next month's transfer window.

A spokesman for the Glazers insisted the Americans were not as naïve about the lurches in sporting fortune as the British media portrayed them. "There's enough slack in their investment, corroborated by the experience of running another large franchise in the [Tampa Bay] Buccaneers, to take this loss in their stride," he said.

The idea of United as a franchise will be anathema to many of the supporters voicing their displeasure. Even United's official website, in its Fanzone section, reflected the dissent - much of it directed against the man whose 19 years at Old Trafford have been strewn with silverware. "It's time Fergie retired," one writer said. "I know we're in transition but the last consistent run we had was at the end of 2002-03."

Another weighed in: "Big changes have to be made because we're not good enough." A third argued: "It's the lowest point in 10 years - they couldn't even get through a group with three very average teams."

The name of the individual conspicuous by his absence in Portugal kept cropping up. "Sir Alex made one mistake too many in getting rid of Roy Keane," a fan complained on the Manchester Evening News website. Another ran: "The only true United performance all season came against Chelsea, because Keane had fired them up."

The man given the onerous task of succeeding Keane as captain, Gary Neville, dismissed the media frenzy. He said: "The last time we weren't in Europe was back in '96 when we got knocked out of the Uefa Cup. We went on to win the League and FA Cup. Now there are no excuses with fixture congestion. We'll have lots of time to prepare - and we have to start by beating Everton on Sunday."

United have a 10-point gap to bridge on Chelsea. If this month looks promising in terms of fixtures, January pits them against Liverpool and Arsenal, either side of a Manchester derby. Each game now will be viewed as a test of Ferguson's security of tenure. Wins against Premiership also-rans are unlikely to be seen as cementing his position, whereas defeats will be interpreted as undermining it.

Meanwhile, the United manager has hard decisions to make. Ferguson has two world-class strikers in Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy, but the team scored a pathetic three goals in six group games. For all the combativeness of Alan Smith, he has little of Keane's driving force and even less of the playmaker's art.

The biggest question marks surely hang over the defenders, principally John O'Shea - from whose flank both Benfica goals originated - Mikaël Silvestre and even Rio Ferdinand, who cannot have impressed the watching England manager Sven Goran Eriksson. Significantly, Moscow Spartak claimed yesterday that Ferguson is interested in the £8.8m-rated Serbia centre-back Nemanja Vidic.

Clubs with United's history, resources and support normally strive for seamless transition. Ferguson, though, is talking of "rebuilding". Assuming he is allowed to get on with it, the job will tax his formidable powers to the hilt.

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