Walcott's pace leaves United wary

Ferguson vows to attack despite concern that Evra's poor form could be exposed

By Ian Herbert
Wednesday 29 January 2014 04:06
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Sir Alex Ferguson's ghosted programme notes sometimes run away from him. Tonight's for the game against Arsenal state that "faint heart never won a fair lady" and yet he was puzzled by the expression when asked yesterday if it encapsulates his strategy for the Champions League semi-final. "What kind of a question's that?" he growled.

An appropriate one. On another of those mighty Old Trafford nights Ferguson will indeed go boldly in search of that second-half elixir which took his players to such an extraordinary victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday and he is weighing up whether to deploy all four of the imperious strike force which delivered it – Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez – from the start. On no occasion this season has that happened, and the chances are that Tevez will start on the bench. Yet Ferguson has a deep appreciation of the powers of expression which his own side and Arsène Wenger's possess and they have been at the forefront of his thoughts since United progressed past Porto in the quarter-final. "Listen," Ferguson said. "Football is about risk. You can see how we've risked over the years. It's part of it, it's part of Manchester United. You've got to risk to win games – not a problem for me that. I've seen us many times in the last 15 minutes of matches having centre-halves playing centre-forward and going gung ho."

That last image offers a hint that he expects the main drama of this tie to be reserved for the Emirates next Tuesday. But tonight is potentially another game of huge significance; one which, incredibly, is the first in Europe between two of the continent's great powers but which has the potential to match Arsenal's 2-1 win at the Emirates last November. Back then it was Samir Nasri who destroyed United, though the player who Ferguson may be fearing more than he lets on this time is Theo Walcott, up against Patrice Evra.

Tottenham's Aaron Lennon ran Evra ragged on Saturday so expect the right flank to be one of Wenger's lines of attack. "We have to do our homework in that respect because the boy Walcott is very quick," Ferguson admitted. "He's probably the quickest forward in England at the moment and we just have to prepare the right way." The United manager's explanation of Saturday's first-half was hardly convincing. "I think the first goal was a bit fortuitous. [Rio] Ferdinand lost the ball in the sun," he said, but even without the cup-tied Andrei Arshavin, Wenger has grounds to feel an away goal can be his, with Cesc Fabregas' own return to competitive action and form also on Ferguson's mind.

He related yesterday how he watched Fabregas in a youth tournament before Arsenal signed him and might have bid for Emmanuel Adebayor had not his old adversary got in first. "I think Arsène was under the carpet before me." Ferguson beat Wenger to Rafael da Silva and as the list of mutual interests unravels you appreciate the similar football brains at work behind those contrasting exteriors. Youth has become a shared theme, too, with Ferguson blooding eight academy players this season, including Rafael, while Wenger has taken a squad with an average age of 23 to the semi-finals.

No wonder both managers expounded on their rapprochement yesterday. "Pizza-gate" was five years ago but it seemed a lifetime away as Ferguson was asked about last autumn's rumours that the Frenchman may be on the way out. It was, he said, yet another experience they had shared. "That's the cynical world we're in now. Don't forget you had me at the door three years ago. Bloody hell! You had in me in a bath chair down on Torquay beach."

But of course the old Govan blood will be up at 7.45pm tonight as Ferguson – with 13 wins to Wenger's 14 in their encounters since the Frenchman arrived in north London in 1996 – continues his quest to become the first manager to win successive Champions League. He was only told a few weeks back that no club had achieved that feat. "It would be great if we could be the one to do that," he said. "I made the point some weeks ago that we're good at winning things for the first time. That's a good omen for us." And another reason to be bold.

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