Ferguson's system up and running

United's victory in Greece vindicates manager's tactical tinkering
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The Independent Online

Although the headlines and the euphoria rested upon David Beckham's slender shoulders, Roy Keane and Sir Alex Ferguson, soul-mates on most questions of football, would have had as much cause for inner satisfaction.

Since lifting the European Cup in Barcelona, Manchester United in Europe, as opposed to United playing European games at Old Trafford, have been a sometimes disjointed and often shoddy sight – before taking the field in Athens on Wednesday night, they had won only one of their previous 10 away games in the Champions' League.

Last season and this, Eindhoven, Brussels, Munich and La Coruña witnessed Ferguson grinding his teeth under the lights of the post-match press conference and Keane berating lapses of concentration and attitude in the tunnel. Ironically, given the discipline and verve of their performance against Olympiakos, the nadir came in the same Spiros Louis stadium against Panathinaikos in March.

Perhaps of greater long-term interest than the bluff and counter-bluff as to whether Beckham would play was Ferguson's determination to stick with the policy of using Ruud van Nistelrooy as United's lone striker. There was a strong case for playing Andy Cole, who in the event came on for the last 10 minutes and scored almost immediately, but in his last European campaign Ferguson will thrive or fall by this system.

For the first time Van Nistelrooy, who enjoyed perhaps his best game in a United shirt, confessed to feeling comfortable with the tactics. "We had one or two problems in the beginning with the system but now we are used to it and you can see what the results were against Olympiakos," he said. "I held the ball up so my team-mates could come in with good runs and I could play to them."

At the other end of the pitch, using Keane to stiffen a defence which has looked vulnerable both before and after the departure of Jaap Stam is another tactic that appears to be bearing fruit. But for another, familiar, loss of concentration late on in the Riazor, it would have worked against Deportivo La Coruña.

On Wednesday, despite the intensity of the atmosphere in the Spiros Louis and the Greeks' successful attempts to hustle United off the ball in the opening 30 minutes, Olympiakos, a team that had overcome Real Madrid and Juventus in Athens and had not lost a home Champions' League fixture, were reduced to threatening only at set-pieces.

Olympiakos' home record and United's away form meant Ferguson would almost certainly have settled for a point on Wednesday; that he returned with three is likely to ensure qualification for the second group stage with the minimum of fuss. Four points from the final three games is not much of a hurdle given that two of them are at Old Trafford. When United travel to Lille for the final group match, Ferguson will probably be able to rest Beckham on the grounds that the result will be irrelevant.

The furore over whether Ferguson ever intended to play England's hero was fascinating for those who are fascinated by the Manchester United manager. Did he seek to rile Beckham by suggesting he was liable to be dropped, or did he intend to confuse Olympiakos?

Ferguson, who once joked that reporting on United was like trying to uncover the secrets of the Kremlin, never opens his mouth to a journalist without some aim in mind. Discovering the aim, however, is another matter entirely.

It is likely Beckham will be rested tomorrow against Sunderland, a team which has caused United plenty of problems on Wearside, and as a consequence usually attracts Ferguson's first-choice side.

Nevertheless, despite Beckham's insistence that he enjoys playing constantly, a glance at the fixture list shows that between 27 October and 1 December, United are pitted against Leeds, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, contests that will determine whether Ferguson, unlike Sir Matt Busby, can give Old Trafford the championship as a farewell gift. Beckham must be fresh for the decisive battles.

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