Neville keen on return to basics for trophy push

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The Independent Football

Gary Neville has admitted Manchester United need to concentrate on their defensive responsibilities to ensure they remain in contention for a domestic cup double. United tackle Liverpool in the FA Cup on Saturday, then Wigan Athletic in the Carling Cup final eight days later with their confidence bolstered by an excellent run of form in front of goal.

Sir Alex Ferguson's men have scored 13 times in the last four games alone, including three first-half efforts against Portsmouth last weekend. Things are not looking so rosy at the other end though, with United's previous defensive stability disappearing since the turn of the year.

Other than the FA Cup ties with non-League Burton and Wolves, United have kept only two clean sheets since Boxing Day, ironically against a couple of leading Premiership clubs in Arsenal and Liverpool.

The period has coincided with the arrivals of Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra from Spartak Moscow and Monaco respectively and also a chronic injury list which forced Ferguson to field Rio Ferdinand in midfield on a couple of occasions last month. Neville acknowledges the attacking traditions of Manchester United mean that defensive durability is not something that has ever been held with particular affection among the Old Trafford faithful.

The veteran full-back also accepts, however, that there is a problem which needs to be sorted out. "We have to refocus on our jobs defensively," he said. "That is the key to winning matches. Manchester United has always been a club that has prided itself on attacking football because it is what the fans want to watch.

"Earlier in the season we were struggling to score goals. We have rectified that problem but we are leaking a few more than we would like. Obviously, when you change the back four you do not get the same understanding. But we are all good individual players and some of the goals have been individual mistakes, which we need to cut out."

Given the Football Association misconduct charge still hanging over him as a result of his wild celebrations after United's most recent win over Liverpool, Neville is deliberately steering clear of controversy in the build-up to Saturday's high-octane meeting.

He is only too aware the home fans will be out to make his life a misery at Anfield, and the fact the tie is on his 31st birthday is not likely to spare him from any of the abuse. Not that Neville will be too bothered. The lifelong United fan is far too dedicated to his profession to have his attention deflected for any length of time.

Neville may well have 76 England caps to his name and a medal collection that extends into double figures but the defender has little time for looking back just yet. "Sometimes you do think about how much you have achieved but it is important not to get bogged down by it too much," he said. "There is too much going on with the next match and the next training session to bother about what has gone before or what is coming in the future."

However, Neville does now shoulder the burden of captaining the world's most famous club following the departure of Roy Keane and has made it pretty clear that he would regard himself as a failure if he became the first United captain since Ray Wilkins not to win a trophy. Although he will not admit it publicly, one senses lifting a cup as United captain would represent the proudest moment of Neville's entire career.

But other than actually wearing the armband, he insists little has changed.

"The captaincy means a lot to me but I don't think it has changed me as a player," he said. "I try to do the same things I have always done over the years. I gave the younger players advice before being made captain, so nothing has altered in that respect."

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