Ferguson's desperation as United lose more ground on leaders

Birmingham City 0 - Manchester United 0
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The Independent Football

Time marches on. Robbie Savage, the eternal scuffling surfer boy, has a landmark birthday today, 30 going on 13 some might say. Wayne Rooney will be 19 next Sunday, despite an England colleague's observation that he looks 32 from behind. The same day, if Manchester United fail to prevent Arsenal from turning 50, it will be hard to resist the logic of Arsène Wenger's assertion that their time has past.

Time marches on. Robbie Savage, the eternal scuffling surfer boy, has a landmark birthday today, 30 going on 13 some might say. Wayne Rooney will be 19 next Sunday, despite an England colleague's observation that he looks 32 from behind. The same day, if Manchester United fail to prevent Arsenal from turning 50, it will be hard to resist the logic of Arsène Wenger's assertion that their time has past.

As United fly out for tomorrow's Champions' League date in Prague, they can reflect on the club's worst start since the Premiership was launched in 1992. Even if they deny Arsenal their landmark, they will be eight points adrift and still in need of unimaginable lapses by the champions, as well as further setbacks for Chelsea. Talking of whom, there was more than a passing resemblance between Sir Alex Ferguson's side on Saturday and Claudio Ranieri's last season.

Ferguson may not appreciate the comparison, but as his team strove to put pressure on Birmingham in the final half-hour, it was as if the Tinkerman was calling the shots. United had six attacking players on the pitch, with all four out-and-out strikers featuring simultaneously. If it sounds like a nostalgic return to the era when Best, Law and Charlton were complemented by Kidd and Aston, it was nothing of the sort.

The ploy smacked of desperation rather than a spirit of adventure. Rooney and Alan Smith toiled in midfield, while Louis Saha switched from a wide role to replace Smith alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy. Natural width departed with Cristiano Ronaldo, who was seen off by Birmingham's Julian Gray. Paul Scholes, who might have linked the whole, messy patchwork together, was allowed just 13 minutes.

Ferguson wanted four strikers to provide the options he enjoyed in the Treble year of 1999, when he could call on Yorke, Cole, Solskjaer and Sheringham. Playing the current quartet in the same side, with square pegs occupying round holes, resulted in a loss of balance and creativity. It may help to explain why United average only a goal a game after scoring a staggering 20 fewer than Arsenal.

Savage, who Ferguson released when the Welshman was in his teens, was stretching a point when he claimed Birmingham could "easily" have won, Van Nistelrooy having sent the best, point-blank chance against Maik Taylor's legs in the first half. But it has come to something if, as Savage argued, United can be stopped by opponents who simply "get in their faces and make the big tackles".

No one followed that blueprint better than Gray. The former Crystal Palace winger, along with Savage, was surely uppermost in Ferguson's thoughts when he said: "Sometimes you've got to give credit to the other team. They kept pressurising the ball. We never got any composure or rhythm in our game."

The Scot doubted whether Birmingham could sustain such a strategy, intimating that they would be worn out by the spring. Coincidentally, that was when Steve Bruce's side ran out of steam last season, and they have now won only two of their last 20 fixtures. In their next six, however, they meet Southampton, Crystal Palace, Blackburn and Norwich, matches where they can be expected to exploit possession rather than having to hunt the ball down.

Savage identified Newcastle's recent visit as a turning point. "At half-time in that game we were all thinking: 'Where are we going?'" he recalled. "We got a massive rollicking and since then we have taken three points from Newcastle, Bolton away and now United."

Birmingham's progress has been hampered not only by the long-term injury to Mikael Forssell, last season's top scorer, but also by the problem of trying to integrate a clutch of signings in a campaign disrupted by three breaks for international matches. Here, with the exception of Jesper Gronkjaer, who seemed bereft of confidence, the six "new" players on view promised much. For United, who almost conjured another of their trademark late goals when Smith's booming volley veered wide in stoppage time, the game will be up should Arsenal depart Old Trafford unbeaten. "That's a must-win match," said Ferguson.

Nearby, a man who shared the triumphs of the 1990s with him spoke with refreshing candour. "We've had too many draws and the league table never lies," he conceded. Bruce was referring to Birmingham, but the words apply to United only too well.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Melchiot, Cunningham, Upson, Gray; Gronkjaer (Anderton, h-t), Johnson (Tebily, 90), Savage, Dunn; Heskey, Yorke (Clapham, 90). Substitutes not used: Bennett (gk), Martin Taylor.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Fortune; Ronaldo (Scholes, 77), Keane, Kleberson (Rooney, 60), Saha; Van Nistelrooy, Smith. Substitutes not used: Ricardo (gk), P Neville, O'Shea.

Referee: M Halsey (Bolton).

Booked: Birmingham: Savage.

Man of the match: Gray.

Attendance: 29,221.

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