Whether it is a good time or not to be playing a Manchester United side without a win this season – and missing Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo – Tottenham Hotspur will find Sir Alex Ferguson in combative mood at Old Trafford today; an emotion he is likely to have transmitted to his players. Certainly no prisoners were taken when he met the media to discuss the game, with Gabriel Heinze's advisers, Michel Platini and the evil empire of Anfield all receiving both barrels. But there was only sympathy for Martin Jol in his current predicament at Spurs.
Understandably peeved at losing a player of Heinze's ability, albeit to European rivalsin Real Madrid rather than domestic ones in Liverpool, Ferguson revealed the background to regular attempts by the Argentinian's agents to create disruption after his first, excellent season for the club.
According to United's manager, the day before Heinze sustained a bad injury at Villar-real, his agent asked the club to sell him. "Meanwhile his agents kept having meetings with [chief executive] David Gill, asking to [let him] leave, or double his money," Ferguson said. "So whatever happened in the last few months was only a culmination of the drip-drip-drip effect you get when you deal with agents. Absolutely one thing in mind, to make money themselves. They wanted him to be the top-paid player in Manchester United, which is absolutely ridiculous given the quality of players as forwards."
At a Premier League tribunallast week, rumours emerged of a plan for Heinze to be sold to the unlikely destination of Crystal Palace and then moved on to Liverpool, which United are convinced Liverpool must have been aware of. "We are looking into Liverpool's role and will take it as far as it goes," added Ferguson, whose relationship with Rafa Benitez has been seriously impaired by the affair.
There was short shrift too for Platini, the new Uefa chairman, and his proposal to award the fourth English Champions' League place to the FA Cup winners. Ferguson's argument, which he will put to a Europeancoaches' meeting this week, was that winning the Cup is sometimes not much of an achievement: "You can win the FA Cup like Chelsea did last season by playing nobody up until the semi-finals, when they met Blackburn. Does that warrant a place in the Champions' League? We got Millwall in the final a few years ago and no disrespect to them, but what a final that was for us to get. I think it's totally ridiculous. It devalues the Champions' League. Teams have battled through 38 games in a tough League."
An unexpectedly tough opening three matches have yielded two points and one goal forUnited, yet they have had more shots and corners than any other side. "A bizarre game and a bizarre result," was the manager's summing up of last Sunday's 1-0 defeat by Manchester City: "I mean, there's not been a derby game in the history of this world where the home team didn't get a corner kick. Not even when I was playing with Rangers against Celtic! In terms of goals scored it's an easy criticism. But if you look at the other side of it, the number of chances missed, and comparing last season's opening three games, we have had twice the number of chances. I'll ride along with it, I'll be patient with it, because the performance level is very, very good."
What he cannot deny, how-ever, is that those games last season yielded 10 goals, and that Ronaldo, Rooney and Louis Saha, who contributed five between them, are being missed. Circumstances are hardly ideal for integrating Carlos Tevez into the side, and as television pundits have pointed out after every game, shots and crosses are being whipped across the opponents' six-yard area with no natural striker there to turn them in, as was happening a year ago.
The absence of Ledley King, Michael Dawson and the powerful French newcomer Younes Kaboul from Tottenham's def-ensive heart will offer further opportunities this afternoon, so Saha should be among the substitutes at least. "He gives us options because he is a different striker to what we have," Ferguson said. "He's got two great feet, he's good in the air, he's got an athletic presence. You look at last season and in the first half he was terrific, got us 15 goals up to the beginning of December, and if he had stayed fit he would maybe have got us 30 goals."
As for Jol, his United counterpart will offer solidarity along with the red wine today. "Knee-jerk reactions don't just come from the board. In modern-day football you get these guys, hangers-on, who mix with the directors and they all have a voice and put the seed in.
"When I came down here, they had what they called the 'second board' who used to meet in the grill room in Old Trafford on a Monday afternoon and assess the results and get the axe out for Ferguson. That was the kind of rubbish I had to deal with."
Watch Tottenham's visit to Manchester United on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pmReuse content