United's spirit never stronger, says Smith

The United manager has refused to add his voice to the debate over the significance of the boos that rang out at full-time at Old Trafford on Saturday and any suggestion of a crisis this early in the season has been met with his fullest expression of displeasure. However, Smith's description of the mood among the squad between Saturday and Tuesday's win reveals, at the very least, that Ferguson thought it sufficiently serious to rally his experienced players to make sure mistakes were not repeated in the Benfica game.

"In the face of adversity you see how big your players are and you see how many good characters you've got," Smith said. The response after Simao Sabrosa's 59th-minute equaliser will have told Ferguson that, despite the injuries to eight senior players and Wayne Rooney's suspension, the spirit of his squad has not been broken by the defeat to Blackburn that leaves United 10 points behind Chelsea.

Smith said: "The criticism helps you sometimes. No one ever learns anything from winning matches all the time. Sometimes it covers over cracks. Losing a game sometimes, you can see who your players are. You see who wants to get on the ball, you see who wants to win. A few people have learnt a few things about a few players recently and this showed that we are together as a team.

"The spirit's there - and I think that is what people have been questioning over the last week. But we know that is not true. It is disappointing to lose matches, everybody is disappointed. There were no people more disappointed than us after the defeat to Blackburn and there is no better feeling than winning a match.

"When Benfica equalised, if we didn't have a good team spirit, if we didn't have good characters in the team, we would have gone, simple as that. It proved a few points. It does hurt when people boo you because I think everyone thinks we just walked off that pitch on Saturday and forgot about it. I'll tell you we didn't."

Also off the agenda as far as Ferguson is concerned is any discussion of the 4-5-1 formation that is at the root of much of the supporters' disquiet with the team's performances. While that system, championed by his assistant Carlos Queiroz, appeared to have been adapted to give Paul Scholes a more advanced role in behind Ruud van Nistelrooy, Smith said that it was the players' responsibility to interpret new formations.

"We play football for the team and for the manager and he picks his formation," Smith said. "Whatever his formation he picks we should be able to adapt to play it, simple as that. We're good enough players to do that. We've got world-class players, we should be able to play any formation he wants us to and play it right. People criticised us but the first half on Saturday was probably the best we've played all season going forward.

"If we had gone 3-0 up, as we should have done, no one would have said anything about it. But the most important thing is that we have stayed strong together and sometimes when you get criticised, it builds bridges and it builds bonds and, hopefully, you saw that."

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