Ferguson welcomes distraction of derby

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The Independent Football

After the week that Sir Alex Ferguson has had, the distraction of today's Manchester derby could not have come soon enough, despite the defensive problems currently casting a shadow over his bid to keep the title out of Arsenal's grasp.

The passions that will be generated by this lunchtime's fifth-round FA Cup tie against United's closest geographical rival may allow their beleaguered manager to clear his mind, at least temporarily, of the turmoil raging within.

Yesterday, Ferguson would not comment on the latest sabre-rattling from John Magnier and J P McManus, nor the share purchase by the American sports entrepreneur Malcolm Glazer that has racheted up the implicit pressure on his job. Having previously admitted to suffering personal distress over the bitter war that has developed from his dispute with Magnier over the racehorse, Rock Of Gibraltar, this time he insisted he had "nothing to say".

He looked forward instead to the "fantastic atmosphere" that will surround today's sixth FA Cup showdown between United and City, in which the visitors, cheered on by 9,000 of their own supporters - five times the number they were allowed to bring to Old Trafford for December's Premiership match - will be seeking their first win on United's turf since 1974.

United have not survived beyond the fifth round since they last won the competition in 1999 and sceptics might suspect that Ferguson would not be unduly bothered if City, in ebullient mood after their stunning comeback against Tottenham in the last round, were to end his side's interest today.

But he was having none of that. "Despite the importance of the Premiership and the Champions' League, the FA Cup is a great competition and it still means a lot to me," he said. "It will mean a lot to the people watching today and it will be important to Manchester City."

In any case, the unpalatable prospect of losing two games in a row should be more than enough to guarantee Ferguson's full respect. When he said that United could not afford to lose another game this season, he was referring specifically to the Premiership but, after all that has happened this week - not least the 3-2 home defeat against Middlesbrough on Wednesday that left Arsenal five points clear - he cannot countenance another bad day.

Above all, he will want United to allay the doubts that have developed around their defensive stability since the loss of Rio Ferdinand and the injury to Gary Neville.

"The defending has been an issue," he said. "We have lost four goals from set pieces in our last two games. People say we are missing Rio and Gary Neville but we should be doing better than we are. I think we have the players in the squad to correct it. Sometimes you have blips and we are having one at the moment in terms of losing goals. Our attacking play has been phenomenal, though."

Ferguson would not blame Tim Howard for failing to keep out the Franck Queudrue shot that paved the way for Juninho's opening goal in Boro's surprise win, insisting the ball "took a wicked bounce" before squirming through the American goalkeeper's grasp.

Nor would he criticise Wes Brown, whom he took off at half-time after Juninho, all 5ft 5in of him, had scored with a set-piece header. "Wes just needs games and he will be involved in the Cup tie, although not necessarily at the start."

Much will depend, it seems, on whether Gary Neville has recovered from the thigh strain that kept him out of the Middlesbrough fixture, although Ferguson was unsure. "If he is not back for this one, he will be ready for the Leeds game next week," he said.

The possibility of Ferdinand coming out of his self-imposed absence pending the appeal against his forthcoming suspension was dismissed.

Ferguson admitted that "anyone would fancy themselves to score against us at the moment" but his counterpart at City, Kevin Keegan, is not buying the theory that United are ripe to be picked off. He will be without the injured Nicolas Anelka, for one thing.

"To me the words 'vulnerable' and 'Manchester United' do not go together, so I'm not going to talk about the condition they might be in," he said. However, he does not deny that an opportunity exists for his side to score a rare hit against the old enemy.

"Football presents opportunities and we are due to take one sooner or later," he said. "And if we were to get past Manchester United, then there is not a much stronger side left in the Cup, because we know that either Arsenal or Chelsea will be out."

And there was, he said, a duty to their supporters, who have been driving City to deliver a trophy. "You have to be frank and say that this club has underachieved since there was last a trophy here and that was 28 years ago," he said. "Perhaps they overachieved before that, because to have Francis Lee, Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and a lot of other good players around at the same time gave them a special side.

"Our fans still talk about those players but they will do until they get some new heroes. Those supporters deserve more."

City's astonishing win at Tottenham in the fourth-round replay, when they recovered from a three-goal deficit and a man sent off to win 4-3, was held by some to have kept Keegan in his job, one that had looked insecure in view of City's declining form in the League.

But he dismissed the notion that today's match would make or break City's season and, by implication, his own hold on his position. "To say that our chance of winning something rests on this game would be correct but our season does not rest on it," he said.

"But," he conceded, "to win the Cup and stay in the Premier League would make it a very good season."