United manager set for touchline ban as FA waits for TV evidence

Criticism of referee after defeat by Chelsea likely to activate suspended two-game ban for Ferguson

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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson is facing the prospect of a two-match touchline ban over his criticism of referee Martin Atkinson, though the Football Association is still waiting for the release of video footage from Manchester United's in-house TV station and is unlikely to take any action before Sunday's crucial match at Anfield.

The FA had not received footage of Ferguson's comments about Atkinson from MUTV last night and though it expects the broadcaster to co-operate – and risk incurring the manager's wrath – it will obtain his comments by other means if necessary. The FA cannot force United to deliver evidence against their manager. The Association must rule by 6pm today whether Ferguson's criticism of Atkinson – more scathing on MUTV than on Sky Sports – after Tuesday's 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge constitutes misconduct and the chances of a conviction seem to be 50:50.

It is understood that Ferguson has been told to prepare for a new FA charge which, if proved, would trigger the two-game ban hanging over him since his scathing comments about Alan Wiley's fitness last season. If he is charged and pleads guilty he will be in the stands at Anfield. If he denies an offence, it will be put to an independent regulatory commission which would rule by Tuesday, though Ferguson could appeal over that decision if it goes against him, further delaying the disciplinary process.

Ferguson was warned in November 2009 when hit with a two-game ban and £20,000 fine over the Wiley comments that any further offences before the end of the current campaign would result in him being sent to the stands for a further two games. The ban could be extended when the latest incident is appended, though the level of criticism Ferguson directed against Atkinson on Wednesday may not be substantial enough for that. Comments made to the media after a game generally bring a fine, rather than a ban, and the Wiley case was exceptional. Ferguson suggested Wiley had lacked the fitness to manage United's home game with Sunderland on 3 October.

On Wednesday, Ferguson clearly implied bias – one of three ways of breaching rules on post-match comments – when he said the 39-year-old Yorkshire official was not a "fair" referee, but the fact that he immediately rowed back from this claim may count in his favour. "You want a fair referee, you know ... you want a strong referee, anyway, and we didn't get that," the manager told MUTV. "I don't know why he's got the game. I must tell you – I must say that when I saw who was refereeing it, I feared the worst."

Ferguson, who would run the gauntlet of Liverpudlian hate if forced to the stands in L4, seems more likely to miss the FA Cup tie against Arsenalon Saturday week and the home league tie with Bolton seven days later. Though Atkinson should have sent off Chelsea's David Luiz for a challenge on Wayne Rooney which was his second bookable offence, the United manager might have reflected on the changing fortunes of a game that should have left him playing with just 10 men at Wigan three days earlier.

The United manager has a history of criticising Atkinson, and was handed a severe warning after comments he made in 2008, when the official had failed to award Ferguson's side a penalty, but gave Portsmouth one and sent off United goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak. He was also critical of Atkinson's performance when United lost 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in November 2009.

Liverpool, improving under Kenny Dalglish until their shock defeat at West Ham, are suddenly seeing the avenues to next season's Europa League being blocked off, let alone a Champions League place. Sunday's match makes for a fascinating duel, with Ferguson claiming that Rio Ferdinand's calf injury will keep him out of the side, as well as Nemanja Vidic, suspended after his dismissal at Stamford Bridge.

"We feel pretty down but we can move on quickly. We have to," said United's Michael Carrick. "We're used to doing it and normally are good at it."

Ferguson has promised a rare start in central defence for Wes Brown, whose appearances have been limited this term. One of the obvious reasons for that is the form of Chris Smalling who, despite conceding Chelsea's penalty, produced another mature display at Stamford Bridge.

Sunday promises to be his toughest test, though, given both the magnitude and importance of the occasion, plus the fact he has not played alongside Brown before. Brown's last Premier League outing in the centre came against West Ham in February last year. It is little wonder Dalglish is giving serious consideration to handing January signing Andy Carroll a debut at a time when Ferguson's options are severely limited through injury.

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