'Le President' revitalises United

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The Independent Online

For a man known across France as Le President, there was a danger Laurent Blanc would end the season with impeachment, charged with being too slow and too old for the modern game.

When Manchester United suffered their fifth Premiership defeat of the campaign, several newspapers gleefully pointed out that the initial letters of the teams that had beaten them spelled "Blanc". If football was less superstitious, he would have been banished there and then. That the names of the sides to have overcome United have not gone on to spell "Ole Gunnar Solskjaer" can be laid at the door of a defence which has suddenly tightened up when it mattered.

"I think that this year we are capable of doing very well in Europe," said Sir Alex Ferguson before tonight's Champions' League fixture with Nantes, whom they conspicuously failed to get the better of in Brittany. "The way Van Nistelrooy is playing gives you great hope and the one thing that has been bugging us all season [defensive lapses] has evaporated."

With Ronny Johnsen having played his first match since early autumn on Saturday, the option is there for the Manchester United manager to ditch Blanc but the improvement means Ferguson is regretting the 36-year-old's decision to retire at the end of the season.

"He is aware of a lot of the criticism, unfair of course, that has been directed at him," said Ferguson. "Some people have been looking for a scapegoat but they picked the wrong one because he has been marvellous for us.

"Retiring is his decision but he is carrying no more weight than he did 10 or 15 years ago. You see Teddy Sheringham playing as a forward for Tottenham at 35 alongside Les Ferdinand and you think Laurent Blanc could play for another year or two because the qualities he has don't require running."

Which is just as well since Blanc's slowness has been exposed, especially early in the season when he was settling in at Old Trafford. Alan Hansen questioned why Ferguson should have sold Jaap Stam on the grounds he had "lost half a yard of pace" and brought in someone palpably slower.

However, as the Champions' League enters its critical phase, Ferguson argued that Blanc's steadiness under fire, his sound positional sense and his experience of winning big games may be more useful. "He is not quick but he is quicker with his eyes than anybody," said his fellow French defender, Mickaël Silvestre.

Tonight's encounter with Nantes is a long way from being a critical match and, if Ruud van Nistelrooy is presented with the chances he was given in the Stade de la Beaujoire on Wednesday, United may end up very comfortable victors.

Phil Neville and Paul Scholes are suffering from a cold and a chest infection respectively, although Nantes will come to Old Trafford in an uneasy frame of mind. Saturday's 2-1 defeat by Auxerre saw them drop to within three points of a relegation place in Le Championnat and their goalkeeper and captain, Mickaël Landreau, who almost single-handedly kept Van Nistelrooy at bay in La Beaujoire, has confirmed he will leave at the end of the season.

Manchester United (probable, 4-1-4-1): Barthez; Irwin, G Neville, Blanc, Silvestre; Keane; Beckham, Veron, Scholes, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy.

Nantes (probable, 4-4-2): Landreau; Deroff, Cetto, Fabbri, Armand; Ziani, Savinaud, Berson, Quint; Vahirua, Moldovan.

Referee: M Gonzalez (Spain).

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