As if one storm blowing around Old Trafford were not enough, Sir Alex Ferguson has conceded that his defence has psychological frailties heading into tonight's encounter with Bursaspor.
Ferguson – for whom Wayne Rooney's ankle injury, sustained yesterday, is something of a blessing – is confident enough of overcoming a side who lead the Turkish league and are undefeated in it this season to field some of his younger players. He is unmoved by the fact that this strategy backfired on him when a youthful United side sacrificed United's four-year unbeaten European record at Old Trafford against another team of Turks, from Besiktas, last autumn.
But the defensive collapses are a concern, with the slip-up against West Bromwich four days ago joining a list which includes Everton, Fulham and Bolton. "They start thinking, 'Christ, here is another one'," Ferguson said. "That is the impact. The conscious part comes into it. The [defenders] are saying to themselves: 'We are going to have to face the gaffer and explain this again.' But it is inexplicable."
The consequences of that kind of anxiety were evident in the curiously passive display in Valencia last month, the overwhelming desire for a clean sheet to restore belief contributing to United's reluctance to press in the game. The reunion of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic was significant that night, though Ferguson is considering giving Chris Smalling another chance to start pressing Ferdinand, by handing him a role tonight. Jonny Evans injured a knee in training last week and is out of contention.
Yet it will be to absent friends that attention will shift. By 10pm tonight, we will know a little more about whether United's fans side with the manager or Rooney in a battle which is being waged through the media. A good focus might be challenging in the circumstances. There was certainly a struggle to muster any questions for Ferguson about Bursaspor at yesterday's press conference after it was announced that "the Wayne issue" would be covered afterwards.
Given the situation, Ferguson will welcome the uncomplicated presence of a striker like Javier Hernandez, whose goal in Valencia has put United in a far more favourable position than their stuttering display in the Mestalla actually deserved.
Hernandez, purveyor of three goals in four games for club and country, including the strike which was "just like shelling peas", according to his manager in Valencia, is likely to get another start, with Michael Owen's hamstring injury ruling him out.
The United match programme tonight extols the way that the club's "Mexican star took to European football", though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer feels that Hernandez needs more time to adapt in the Premier League. "He's threatening the space behind defenders and that's the worst thing for defenders to play against," Solskjaer said. "We've got players who can play him in. He'll have to link play too but the way he moves off the ball gives us an option to play that direct way, too."
The Bursaspor manager, Ertugrul Saglam, had some sympathy last night with Ferguson's travails about Rooney, having experienced his own star – the midfielder Volkan Sen – twice going Awol this season, on unsanctioned visits to the United States to visit his girlfriend. Saglam eventually dropped Sen for two matches, and the midfielder is only expected to be on the substitutes' bench this evening.
"These problems occur from time to time with players," Saglam said. "We have experienced something similar in the last couple of weeks, so I know what it is like to have player problems. But Manchester United have the depth. Whoever they put in to replace Rooney is likely to be of a very high standard."
Ferguson did not exactly return that compliment with interest. A side whose only previous encounter with English opposition was a 4-0 Intertoto Cup victory over Wimbledon 15 years ago – and who have lost to Valencia and Rangers so far – should be dealt with, he declared. "They have lost their first two games and maybe that is their lack of experience," Ferguson said. "The Champions League is not easy. With our home record we hope we can put it to bed."
Three key clashes
Dimitar Berbatov v Omer Erdogan
In the absence of Wayne Rooney, Berbatov will have to engage in the sort of physical battle usually preferred by the want-awayEnglishman. Erdogan is a canny, experienced centre-back who captained Bursaspor to their first ever Turkish title last season. United might well miss Rooney’s will to win as against Berbatov’s languid approach.
Patrice Evra v Volkan Sen
In previous years a meeting with a raw 23-year-old winger like Sen would have barely registered with the assured Evra. But his World Cup travails and recent poor form has knocked his confidence and the lively, darting Sen could well induce more of the mistakes that have littered Evra’s game this season.
Paul Scholes v Ivan Ergic
The respective heart-beats of their sides, Scholes and Ergic are both well-equipped with European experience: Serbian internationalErgic played eight years for Basel, winning 11 trophies, before joining Bursaspor in the summer. If Scholes can keep him from breaking into the box and supporting Sercan Yildrim, Bursaspor will struggle for goals.Reuse content