Ferguson's case for the defence fails to stand up

Manchester United 2 Fulham 1
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The case for the defence, as expounded by Sir Alex Ferguson, was not the most persuasive of his arguments about Manchester United's performance and prospects as they embark on a week that the manager himself believes will "define our season".

The question - how did he think his team had played? - offered the United manager the opportunity to accentuate the positives before they attempt to overturn a 2-1 deficit against Porto in the Champions' League tomorrow and to prevent Arsenal from moving out of sight in the Premiership by winning the Manchester derby at City on Sunday.

There were several pluses. A place in today's draw for the FA Cup semi-finals, for one. Ensuring that Fulham did not build on their "bogey team" status, for another. Not to mention Ruud van Nistelrooy's finishing, the all-round excellence of the national treasure that is Ryan Giggs and the vast promise of Darren Fletcher and Cristiano Ronaldo.

But Ferguson's reply saw him go straight on the defensive, as it were, protesting too much that United did well at the back. Somewhat richly, he claimed the Old Trafford crowd were causing anyone who made a mistake to "feel nervous". Wes Brown, he added, was "a bit unlucky with the penalty [he conceded] - it was just a matter of timing".

All of which merely drew attention to the error-prone nature of United's rearguard since Rio Ferdinand's enforced absence. The fans had a right to be disturbed by the sight of Roy Keane so obviously ill at ease in central defence. Brown, far from being unfortunate, could easily have incurred a red card for scything through Luis Boa Morte.

Ferguson maintains Ferdinand and Mikaël Silvestre were forging the kind of partnership Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister once formed. After losing half of the duo, he was then hit by an injury to the other. Regretting the failure to buy a centre-back during the transfer window is not his style. However, he did admit in the programme that "when things start going wrong at the back, other departments can lose confidence too".

Silvestre could return against Porto, while Gary Neville, whose suspension applies only to domestic fixtures, is also eligible. Keane is banned (and injured anyway), but Ferguson must weigh Brown's ability against his worrying form. Even if he is able to field a more solid unit, it is to those "other departments", their attacking players, that United will look to take them into the last eight in Europe.

The news on that front was far better for Ferguson. Van Nistelrooy, clearly unhappy to have been rested the previous weekend, vindicated the manager's decision to recharge his batteries by scoring near-identical goals. The first, made by Giggs, nullified Steed Malbranque's penalty almost before Fulham could savour their lead. Ronaldo created United's second, and a favourable impression to boot.

United's coaching staff have evidently been working on the 19-year-old Portuguese. In place of the trademark showboating and gamesmanship, Ronaldo used his pace in a more direct fashion to feed Van Nistelrooy's needs. He also twanged the bar at 1-1, just as Zat Knight, conspicuously the game's outstanding centre-back, did earlier for Fulham.

Fletcher, a comparative veteran of 20, also hinted at a growing maturity. If at first he overhit his longer passes, his awareness of the need to switch the focus of attack was encouraging. After half-time he found his range, a beautifully measured ball to Ronaldo initiating the winner.

A fellow Scot, Steve Kean, talked as if Fulham had avoided defeat. "A great team effort, good attitude, we were satisfied," the acting manager said. Therein lay the problem. Fulham seemed content to lose honourably, surprisingly so given their victory here in October. After starting with only one up front, Kean, who is renowned for his tactical prowess, did not really send an extra man forward until the final 10 minutes.

Perhaps the die was cast as long ago as January, when Louis Saha, whose pace would have tormented this United defence, switched sides. Now Fulham have "only" a Uefa Cup place to aim for via their League position. In Chris Coleman's debut season, widely tipped to end in relegation, that incentive should prevent the campaign from petering out.

United press on, unconvincingly by their own standards. More than any club, they know that perseverance pays. They cling to the memory of the treble-winning spring of 1999 and of last season's late role-reversal with Arsenal. And they back up their hopes with a theory, albeit one that smacks of clutching at straws after you have failed to grasp the nettle.

If this week goes well, says its logic, then the five-day spell in late March, when a Premiership trip to Arsenal follows the first leg of the Champions' League quarter-final, could yet redefine "definitive".

Goals: Malbranque pen (23) 0-1; Van Nistelrooy (25) 1-1; Van Nistelrooy (62) 2-1.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Howard; P Neville, Keane (Djemba-Djemba, 73), Brown, O'Shea; Ronaldo (Solskjaer, 88), Fletcher, Butt, Scholes; Giggs; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Forlan, Kleberson.

Fulham (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Volz, Goma, Knight, Green; Malbranque, Clark (Petta, 80), Legwinski (Pembridge, 62), Davis, Boa Morte; McBride (Hayles, 62). Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Djetou.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Bookings: United: Keane, P Neville. Fulham: Boa Morte, Goma.

Man of the match: Van Nistelrooy.

Attendance: 67,614.