Ferguson's tolerance tested to limit

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The Independent Online

Whenever Fabien Barthez performed what might be termed one of his "eccentricities", Sir Alex Ferguson would smile ruefully to himself and say that it was in the nature of the man.

Last night as Old Trafford looked on in mortification as Barthez's attempted sliding tackle some 10 yards out of his area led to Diego Tristan calmly sliding a ball into an empty net, the Manchester United manager turned and gave the heavens a fixed stare.

Ten second-half minutes had put the best and the worst of the Frenchman pointedly on display. Immediately after the interval, Barthez had turned aside what had seemed a certain goal from Juan Valeron, struck from near the penalty spot and did the same five minutes from the end when Walter Pandiani's header seemed certain to put the result beyond doubt.

However, a decision to come racing to Wes Brown's rescue as the defender was overhauled like a labrador pursued by a greyhound would have put United's entire future in this group in the balance, had Lille managed to hang on to their lead against Olympiakos.

Ferguson would not criticise Barthez, just as Bruce Grobbelaar's errors of judgement at Anfield were not condemned by Kenny Dalglish. Both keepers were too far in credit with their respective defences. The United manager has already indulged Barthez in a way he does few of his players.

Shortly after arriving in Manchester – although typically when first seeking out the city, he found himself in Liverpool – Barthez was allowed to slip back to France. Even photographs of the goalkeeper at Parisian parties produced nothing but a smile from his manager. Barthez, he remarked, was a natural winner, who had spread more of a positive influence around the dressing-room than virtually any other player since Eric Cantona.

He was, admittedly, not well served by his defence on one of the most electric evenings of football even Old Trafford can have witnessed.

When Javier Irureta was coach of Santander, he took a side to La Coruña and played eight at the back and even then he lost to a late free-kick. Last night, the Basque's tactics were far more subtle. In the Riazor, when they had also come back from a goal behind to overcome United, Deportivo had used plenty of width. Here, just as they had done when playing away to Lille, the Galicians attacked through the middle and, too often, Barthez was offered scant protection.

For Deportivo's equaliser, Brown, who last night served to question Ferguson's assertion that he is the best natural centre-half in England, sold his own keeper a dummy, although once more there was no need for him to have come so far off his line. It would have interested Ferguson that the man challenging Sergio as he headed in Deportivo's second was David Beckham.

The old demons of carelessness, which appeared to have been exorcised in Athens, have returned and although it may have been of scant consolation to Ferguson, there can have been fewer finer games in the short history of the Champions' League than this.

After one extraordinary match against Juventus, when United had come from two down to win in Turin, Ferguson commented that he never knew why his team always made things so hard for themselves. But this was the season which finished with him lifting the European Cup.

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