Season of failure prompts talk of a Manchester away double

In the week that Kevin Keegan capitulated to the inevitable, will Alex Ferguson make it a Manchester away double come the summer?

A bloody nose for Ryan Giggs, inadvertently or otherwise, from the splendidly named Gennaro Gattuso, who could conceivably replace Roy Keane at Old Trafford, reflected Manchester United's night at the San Siro.

The Welsh international's wounds will swiftly heal. One cannot be quite so certain about United's health. If a manager is judged, as ultimately Sir Alex Ferguson must be in the rarefied atmosphere in which he operates, by his team's prowess in Europe and the Premiership, this season - notwithstanding an unlikely collapse by Chelsea - is a failure.

Already the bookmakers sit vulture-like on the sidelines, shouting the odds against a litany of successors. The 33-1 on offer about Everton's manager, David Moyes, has been voraciously devoured by some speculators, though one suspects this is one position that the man for all vacancies, Celtic's Martin O'Neill, would be unable to resist should the call come.

Some commentators contend that Ferguson, of all managers, remains blessed with that precious asset, time; that the 15 trophies United have won under him will ensure his credit remains good. Yet you just wonder. In four days, his team have come perilously close to surrendering the championship to Chelsea and have forfeited their right to remain among Europe's élite.

Even if there are no evident stirrings among the board - perhaps United's most recent Premiership and European form is a secret plan to negate the interest of Malcolm Glazer - what will be the effect on his own frame of mind? In the week that Kevin Keegan capitulated to the inevitable, will the Scot make it a Manchester away double come the summer?

Ferguson has attempted to remain upbeat in the wake of United's elimination, claiming that his team should move forward to the next challenge. "They know they played in two marvellous games where the technical football was terrific," he says. "It was great entertainment with a high level of skill. They realise they weren't turned over, and they know what to do next time. The players know they were not far off, and that helps recovery."

His assistant, Carlos Queiroz, blames a lack of a winter break for United's malaise, but Chelsea's redoubtable second-half performance against Barcelona, in which they displayed no evidence of wilting, tends to give the lie to that reasoning. No one looks more full of running than Frank Lampard, despite having played virtually every game this season.

Can Ferguson honestly scrutinise his team - taking into account those absent - who lost both legs of the tie against Milan, and, more pertinently, failed to score against them, and visualise a side to claim the championship or Champions' League next season? This, remember, was a Milan deprived by injury of Andriy Schevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi. Both goals were executed by Hernan Crespo, on loan from Chelsea.

There is no shame in losing to Milan, who boast those ageless sentries Paolo Maldini and Cafu, and a fellow named Jaap Stam, whom Ferguson jettisoned far too hastily. They will frustrate other talented teams in the final eight. It is merely that, by the kind of standards Ferguson established as a marker like a master stonemason with his domestic titles and that 1999 Champions' League triumph, this collection have been found wanting. Ferguson's unconvincing response has been to contend that his players' relative lack of experience compared with that of Milan cost United. He must know that such a plea of mitigation will be dismissed from court. It is playing with numbers, or rather with players' years.

At the San Siro, there was no Gary Neville, which meant the deployment of the injury-prone Wes Brown at full-back. However, he is an England international. Ruud van Nistelrooy played, but arguably should not have. He appeared sluggish by his own standards, and did not bring the best out of Wayne Rooney.

But if we ignore Brown and Van Nistelrooy, what of the remainder? Rio Ferdinand? Mikaël Silvestre? Gabriel Heinze? Paul Scholes? Roy Keane? Ryan Giggs? No matter what their ages are compared with those of Carlo Ancelotti's team, these are hardly striplings plucked from the youth team. These are all quality, experienced internationals.

Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are still teenagers, but they are scarcely callow youths. Rooney boasts 21 England caps, with nine goals already. Both played in Euro 2004. There willbe more to come from that pair, as Ferguson bullishly predicts, and both were cruelly reminded by their lack of impact in Milan that there will have to be. Nevertheless, there remains a fallibility about United, the result of the failure effectively to replace Keane and Peter Schmeichel, and a dearth of the kind of talent that emerged with the Beckham-Neville-Scholes generation from United's academy.

Word has it that the gimlet eye of Ferguson is focused on Lyon's 22-year-old Ghanaian Michael Essien, who scored twice in the 7-2 defeat of Werder Bremen on Tuesday, as a prospective long-term replacement for Keane. Gattuso, the former Rangers man, and the Brazil-based Argentinian Javier Mascherano could also be part of United's summer harvest.

But how much longer will Ferguson farm it? When he looks at his squad, does he view a team all but in place? Or does he observe a side who, once injuries deplete them, look incapable of progressing any further than this season? That is the real test of his resolve, and his nerve.

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