Young guns trigger United gloom

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The Independent Football

Captaining your side in the Champions' League, a tournament described by Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday as the "best tournament of all time", would and should be a sign you have established yourself at the highest level.

Captaining your side in the Champions' League, a tournament described by Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday as the "best tournament of all time", would and should be a sign you have established yourself at the highest level.

That's not how it works at Manchester United, at least not against Fenerbahce on Wednesday night, when Phil Neville's armband was not so much a sign of arrival, but of a footballing purgatory.

Most of the United side who slumped to a 3-0 defeat in Istanbul will probably be waiting indefinitely to secure real first-team status, as opposed to first-team outings in second-rate games in the League Cup or European dead rubbers.

"The good thing about being manager is that you are in control of which team to pick," Ferguson said, when asked for the umpteenth time why he had travelled with such a weak squad.

A local journalist then suggested that unlike Fenerbahce's Christoph Daum, who said it was a matter of club pride always to play your best team, Ferguson did not care.

"I care about Manchester United," Ferguson shot back. "That is the important thing, so while I am disappointed at the result I am not disappointed at the team I selected.

"This game was important for the young lads who were involved. They will remember it and next time they come here they will be better, believe me."

The wry smile suggested there had already been a rollocking for his defenders - Neville, Wes Brown, John O'Shea and Quinton Fortune - whose work he collectively described as "disappointing". Yet it is hard to see prolonged action in Ferguson's A-team for any of them.

The optimistic Neville does not see it this way, although he conceded the defeat was a "reality check" for him and his team-mates. He added that Ferguson's faith in him was evidenced by a new five-year contract - though it has yet to gain him a regular starting place.

In midfield on Wednesday, Cristiano Ronaldo was far from his best, although his tenure among the elite should be assured as long as his attitude does not become a problem. Ferguson took him to Turkey to demonstrate that he should not get too complacent.

Darren Fletcher did nothing very wrong, or right. Eric Djemba-Djemba was too permeable for an enforcer, Liam Miller too dormant as a creative spark and Kieran Richardson too willing to let Fortune take responsibility for advancing on the wing. Up front, alone, David Bellion did not get the service to prosper, and lacked sharpness when a chance did come his way. In short, a team of young individual talents, supposedly United's back-up and future, came up short.

This week, it did not matter. If United had won, and topped the group, the potential lurking giants would have been Spanish, not Italian. "It is the hardest challenge any team or coach will face in the game," Ferguson said of the Champions' League.

It is not easy for young pretenders, either.

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