Rio's diary date: an unforgettable return

Ferguson's sorely missed defender is back for battle to stem goals and silence doubts
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The Independent Online

As forgetfulness goes, it was certainly a class above omitting to put the empty milk-bottles out. When Rio Ferdinand went shopping instead of taking a routine drugs-test four days short of a year ago, he could hardly have imagined the cost to his club and country.

As forgetfulness goes, it was certainly a class above omitting to put the empty milk-bottles out. When Rio Ferdinand went shopping instead of taking a routine drugs-test four days short of a year ago, he could hardly have imagined the cost to his club and country.

The Manchester United defender - "probably the best in the world", accor-ding to his team-mate Paul Scholes - has missed 32 games as his club subsided in the Premiership and Champions' League. A point clear of Arsenal when he limped off at Wolverhampton in January, United immediately suffered a critical defeat after an error by his replacement, Wes Brown, and later bowed out of Europe when conceding three poor goals against Porto. Later, his absence from Euro 2004 was keenly felt as England failed to hold on to leads against France and Portugal.

Sven Goran Eriksson and Sir Alex Ferguson both had reason to curse him even before dropping unexpected points in the new season. Instead, both have been remarkably supportive, Eriksson enduring widespread wrath and calls for his head in the process, while Ferguson took the flak for United's worst start to a season since managing only four points from five games in 1989-90.

Ferdinand owes both men, and can start paying them back at last over the next three weeks. His international obligations will have to wait until John Hartson and Welsh friends visit Old Trafford on 9 October, but the chance to thank United for their support and salary (an estimated £2.6m over the course of the eight-month ban) will almost certainly arrive on the same home ground tomorrow night in the high-octane fixture against Liverpool.

The word "almost" is necessary because Ferguson is holding back on a final decision about whether to throw his most expensive signing straight back into the fray or leave him among the substitutes. "I can't make my mind up because there's so much hype and I don't want that to overshadow the importance of the game," was the manager's initial thought on Friday. Within a few minutes, however, that had become: "He's got a great chance, of course he has."

Ferguson can take encouragement from the previous return of a United hero under similar circumstances, when Eric Cantona was set free after his eight-month suspension for the (far worse) offence of drop-kicking a Crystal Palace supporter. Having been talked out of retire-ment, he came back against the same Liverpool opposition, lifted the crowd, inspired the team, made one goal and scored another from a penalty.

Nine years later, resentment over the case lingers on at Old Trafford, as l'affaire Ferdinand will, with Ferguson encouraging an attitude of United against the world; or, at least, the World Anti-Doping Agency, who put pressure on Fifa and the Football Association for draconian punishment and then expressed concern that the ban was not for two years. Already seething about previous inconsistencies in football, United officials are mystified as to how Russia were allowed to compete at Euro 2004 after knocking out Wales with a midfielder who had tested positive (unlike Ferdinand); and by the recent case of an NAC Breda player who failed a test and was suspended for only 10 games.

Publicly there is a reluctance to dwell on the matter, save to point to improvements in the system that have resulted, even to the extent of a UK Sport tester inviting himself into United's dressing-room while Ferguson debriefed his players (vigorously, we may assume) after the 2-2 draw at Bolton last week.

That was one of three successive away draws they have salvaged from apparent defeat, illustrating admirable powers of recovery but equally obvious defensive frailty. All the more reason, surely, to reintegrate Ferdinand into the back four as soon as possible. "We've had periods in the past when we seemed to get punished every time we made a mistake," Ferguson said. "But more important is that until we get a settled back four I'm not going to be able to have a true assessment of the abilities of my defenders. Once you start changing all the time you do get inconsistency of results. Once we get a back four playing, I'm very confident we'll be OK."

There are other concerns, notably the form behind that inconsistent back-line of Tim Howard, whose gaffes in goal have cost victory in the two most recent games at Bolton and Lyon. Ferguson, on his own admission, rested the American too late last season, before deciding on a reprieve for the FA Cup final. The time has come again to decide whether to allow him one more chance or summon the reliable, if less spectacular, Roy Carroll.

Then there is the midfield, with Roy Keane suddenly labouring and the team growing more dependent on wizardry down the wing from Cristiano Ronaldo and (less regularly) Ryan Giggs than the previous solidity and drive through the middle. United will need an improvement in that area tomorrow to stop Xabi Alonso running the game. Before his first joust with Rafael Benitez, Ferguson tips his hat to the Liverpool man's knowledge of the Spanish market, "an insight that gives him an advantage over us, like Arsène Wenger knowing the French market and making Vieira and Henry into fantastic players". Sadly, knowledge of an impoverished Scottish market is no substitute these days.

Ferguson has spread his wings and his scouts far and wide, however, and consolations for the season's poor results exist in the form of Gabriel Heinze, a sharp and tenacious new left-back exempt from criticisms of the defence; Ruud van Nistelrooy's predatory qualities, bringing two goals in Lyon; and the imminent recovery from injury of one Wayne Rooney. The boy wonder with the broken foot is running and kicking (a ball, not opponents yet), though he faces a medical on Monday and has "no chance", according to Ferguson, of facing his old Anfield foes.

So the spotlight will shine on Ferdinand, of whom his manager says: "He's handled the whole thing fantastically well. Eric was a more emotional character, Rio's quite phlegmatic. His temperament's so calm, and he's not got bitter, like Eric did. The big sacrifice for players who are out for long periods is that they miss the joy of playing on Saturday."

So, when Saturday comes - or in these BSkyB days, Sunday or Monday - come in, No 5. And welcome back.

LIFE WITHOUT RIO FOR UNITED AND ENGLAND

Plays his 70th match for Man United tomorrow. Signed for £30m from Leeds in July 2002, he has taken 38 months to chalk them up; represented Leeds 70 times too, over a period of 32 months.

Has missed 32 games for United since limping off at Wolves in January. Of those, United have won 16, drawn 9 and lost 7. Their Premiership record during his absence is P21 W9 D7 L5 - 34 points from a possible 63.

England have played 13 times since Ferdinand was banned. Of those they have won seven, drawn five and lost one.

The Actim index, the official player-ratings system of the Premiership, shows that over the first five matches of last season, Ferdinand's mark was 0.58. After the first five games of this campaign, the highest-ranked United defender is Mikaël Silvestre (0.48).

Statistics don't lie: United averaged 0.71 goals conceded per match with Ferdinand; without him they have leaked 1.14.

United have used six different defensive formations to plug the void, while England have used eight, including substitutions. For United: Brown-Silvestre, O'Shea-Silvestre, P Neville-Brown, Keane-Brown, G Neville-Brown, Keane-Silvestre. England: Southgate-King; Terry-Woodgate; Terry-Campbell; Campbell-Carragher; Campbell-King; Terry-King; Southgate-Gardner; King-Carragher.

While he has been sitting out his ban, Ferdinand has been paid £2.6m in wages by Manchester United.

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