Shocking cost of Ferdinand's loss hits home

One-way traffic can't hide the troubles. Guy Hodgson reports on Rio's legacy

Sir Alex Ferguson said a sense of shock reverberated around Old Trafford this week after Rio Ferdinand's failed appeal for missing a drugs test, and he is right.

Among Manchester United's supporters there is shock that they are out of the Champions' League, shock that they are so far behind Arsenal they can barely see the Premiership leaders, and shock that the defence has become, well, shocking.

When Ferdinand chose to empty his wallet rather than his bladder on 23 September little did he realise the implications because, as soon as he began his belated eight-month suspension, opponents remorselessly began to take the sample out of United's back four.

The forgetful one limped out of the away game against Wolves in January and United arrived at yesterday's game having shipped 15 goals in six-and-a-half games, the worst record in the Premiership. The defence, like Ferdinand's in the original hearing, has been lame, and United have gone from being top dogs to yapping also-rans.

"Forget all the rubbish being written about us," Ferguson snorted yesterday, but when fans stop putting The Exorcist in the video and scare themselves with City of Manchester Stadium - The Highlights you know there are problems. Conceding goals to Porto's Benni McCarthy is one thing, letting Jon Macken and Trevor Sinclair make monkeys out of you is another.

An apology was in order, and while it appears hell will be hosting ice hockey before Ferdinand says sorry, Ferguson came as close as he does to admitting there is a problem in the programme yesterday. "Overall we defended badly again," he wrote in reference to the derby massacre. "Given the changes we've had to make to the back four, the players have... forgotten the simple things." Marking, tackling, heading came to mind - not to mention composure in Gary Neville's case - but Fergie would not be the knight ever pursuing the holy grail if he did not have a retort. "We can work on that, though, and while I don't underestimate our task, the situation is not as black as some would have us believe."

It is always blackest just before the dawn, and the sun as far as United are concerned often comes in the shape of Tottenham, whose record at Old Trafford long since deteriorated from lamentable. If United's back four were lacking in confidence then Spurs, who approached this game with just one win in 26 years of trying, made the home defenders look arrogant.

David Pleat's pre-game message must have gone on the lines of: "Put pressure on United and they could crack," but that required lengthy time in home territory and Spurs rarely looked likely to deliver. Even the Keystone Cops, and United's back four have merited comparison in recent weeks, could defend on the halfway line.

Not without alarm. Spurs' Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe looked sprightly at the start but, once United realised that the cockerel was all crow, they relaxed. Just two long-range shots from Stephen Carr threatened United's new- found sang-froid, and even those would have been minor accelerants to the pulse if United's strikers had been ruthless. Ruud van Nistelrooy should have had a hat-trick, Diego Forlan managed to clear off Spurs' line and Paul Scholes had one shot so limp it curled back in the wind.

But when you have been a car crash waiting to happen a tootle along a one-way street is a triumph, and for the first time since Ferdinand's suspension United had kept a clean sheet in the League. Compare that to last season, when they won the title with the meanest defence, and you can gauge his absence.

The cover of the latest Red Issue fanzine has Roy Keane asking his manager how he can spend £40m since May and be out of Europe by now. "I had to do something to make spending £30m for Rio look good value," is the reply. The true cost of the defender as United ponder a season without a trophy is rising.

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