Going is good but there's still no rock in Fergie's defence

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The Independent Football

The morning had broken in Manchester with reports of a rapprochement. At least between the warring off-field factions, Sir Alex Ferguson and the two Manchester United shareholders, J P McManus and John Magnier, who, having increased their stake this week to a fraction below 30 per cent, have effective control of the club. On the pitch, against their city rivals, there was not a chance of peace in our time.

The romance of the FA Cup? The only hearts here were worn on the sleeve in a contest where the lingering resentment over the Roy Keane-Alf Inge Haaland affair creates a perpetual running sore whenever the two teams meet. On St Valentine's Day, whatever affection lay between these clubs was soon eradicated by a spot of silliness instigated by an absurd claim for a penalty by Gary Neville, followed by a Glaswegian kiss -- well, actually, more of a pucker -- for Steve McManaman from the offending defender during the ensuing fracas, which concluded with his banishment.

The self-styled "shop steward" may have departed near the end of a first half in which Paul Scholes had already prodded United ahead, but the brothers' vote to strike was accepted unanimously, and with particular venom by Ruud van Nistelrooy, with a brace, and Cristiano Ronaldo. TV evidence demonstrated pretty conclusively that Neville was bang to rights, deserving both the caution he received for diving and the red for the head-butt. The referee, Jeff Winter took precisely the correct course of action after an incident that does little credit to either side. Even Ferguson harboured no real objections. "Gary can't do things like that," he said. "He knows that. But it's out of character for him."

So, Ferguson's men advance to the competition's sixth round, albeit while continuing to ship goals as though the concept of defending has become alien to them -- even when confronted by an Nicolas Anelka-less City who were insipid for much of the first half and then, after being guilty of atrocious finishing in the second period, virtually capitulated. A few days ago, Kevin Keegan was the Comeback King after that freak show at White Hart Lane, the only agreeable punctuation in a miserable sequence of 14 Premiership games without victory.

City, and Keegan, have little left to ponder now but Premiership survival. United and their supporters should be buoyant. Indeed, one of the latter, Michael Atherton, the former England cricket captain who in his retirement has chosen to describe the action rather than participate in it, opined immediately afterwards: "Great game - better than cricket."

Yet still a sense of disquiet permeates at a club riven with intrigue ever since Fergie's new best friends in the months after they first met at Cheltenham Festival seven years ago became his nemesis. Reports, as yet unconfirmed, suggest that on Monday Ferguson will agree to drop his court case involving the stud rights of the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar for a settlement of £80,000 a week. During the horse's racing career, the Scot was officially named as owning a 50 per cent partnership with Magnier's wife, Sue.

Leafleteers now line the streets before games, urging followers to purchase shares in the club. Considering that McManus and Magnier bought eight million of the things this week, at a cost of £20.8m, it remains little more than a spit in the wind against the forces who control the plc which owns United.

At next month's Cheltenham Festival, some supporters have actually requested that they should be permitted to stage a "peaceful, vocal" protest against the Irish pair on Gold Cup day at the course which has become almost a second home to McManus and Magnier, though frankly one can quite comprehend why the Cheltenham managing director, Edward Gillespie, says the course management are "trying to get our head around that".

Following McManus and Magnier's99 questions to the United board, the invest-igative journalist and shareholder Michael Crick has somewhat mischievously formulated a similar number of questions forthem in response. He presumably won't be holding his breath, awaiting an answer from a duo who make the Barclay Brothers look like chatterboxes. Maybe more will be forthcoming concerning the intentions of the American sports magnate Malcolm Glazer, who has also increased his stake though is not, as far as we are aware, involved in bloodstock, even though he does bear an uncanny similarity to the TV betting pundit John McCririck. Is a takeover in the air, or are these strategies more concerned with share price and profit?

Questions, questions, questions. For the moment, the only answers Ferguson requires relates to what has happened to his team's defence. The gum-chewing manager was at times a mask of mastication as he surveyed City's McManaman and Joey Barton both spurning clear chances when the score was 1-0, though Tim Howard's acrobatics and alertness contributed to their failure. The home defence still appears horribly porous at times.

Fortunately for them, City's was infinitely worse. They were rarely able to contain that Nijinsky of the Old Trafford turf, Ronaldo, who pranced elegantly around the outstretched feet of Michael Tarnat, a particular victim. It was just as well for the visitors that his promise is not yet fully realised in his end product.

And on this occasion, there is no dispute that the Portuguese winger, who will feature against England on Wednesday, is 100 per cent in Ferguson's and United's ownership. Even the Coolmore Mafia would have to agree to that.

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