Fergie's foundations far from Rock-like

Nick Townsend
Sunday 17 November 2002 01:00

The Rock of Gibraltar had declared itself unassailable to the Spanish; the question now is whether the man who happens to own a racehorse of that name can inspire his football team to become such an obstacle to Spanish conquistadors. Friday's Champions' League second- phase draw in a tournament that seemingly lasts an eternity, with the winner playing at least 17 games (Liverpool competed in just eight en route to the old European Cup final), has ostensibly offered Manchester United a heaven-sent chance to qualify for the final eight.

Crucially, Sir Alex Ferguson's team have avoided the trio of Spanish clubs who they would have most feared, namely Real Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona, and they have been fortunate enough to circumnavigate the Italian pair Milan and Internazionale. Contrary to the claim of the Newcastle United chairman, Freddy Shepherd, borne more out of optimism than rationale, that his club have the easiest group of the three English clubs, Manchester United's progress would seem to be set fair.

Notwithstanding Liverpool's extraordinary failure to account for Basle over two games, Christian Gross's team are seriously deficient in defence. They conceded no fewer than 12 goals in finishing second in their group, as, indeed, did Deportivo La Coruña, whom Manchester United defeated twice in the quarter-finals last season, having lost to them home and away in the first phase.

Juventus are undergoing a resurgence, together with other Serie A clubs, in Europe, or as Ferguson puts it: "Their football has stepped up a bit this year. They have had a couple of barren seasons which is unlike the Italians because you only have to look at European football over the past two decades and their names are splattered across the tournaments." However, Italian clubs are not acknowledged for their ability to claw their way out of the group phases. Only one of a possible six have reached the knock-out stage since the format changed.

So, all bodes well for United, doesn't it? As a club, of course, they are old hands on these European voyages, but despite their facile progress to this stage – defeat at Maccabi Haifa excepted – there is the suspicion that the one-time elite fleet could become becalmed. Rio Ferdinand's absence for possibly a month with a thigh injury is not what Ferguson needs to contemplate when his rearguard are becoming increasingly unconvincing as a cohesive force.

Laurent Blanc's powers of old are clearly on the wane, the newcomer John O'Shea has demonstrated definite potential but still appears exposed by his inexperience at times, and Gary Neville is scarcely at the top of his form. The oft-criticised Mikaël Silvestre is probably United's best defender at present.

At one time, any defensive frailties were overlooked because of the prowess of their strikers and attacking midfielders, but that is no longer the case. A goal tally of 16 in Europe during the first phase gives a false impression of their potency.

As has been suggested in these columns before, Ferguson – winner last week of a racehorse Owner of the Year award because of the feats of "The Rock" – may have done nobody any favours, including himself, by doing a Dick Whittington on his decision to retire. Nobody would contend that the Scot doesn't invest as much time and commitment as ever in the club, but perception can be a destabilising force.

There is a feeling among many United followers that, given the dearth of home-nurtured players emerging, he has failed to strengthen adequately when the time demanded it. When he has speculated in the market, his investments have been debatable. It would be a brave man who would say that directly to him, of course, as one supporter did at the club's annual meeting.

As shareholder Peter Briody apparently expressed it, Ferguson should have retired, having "come out with your racehorse Rock of Gibraltar's blinkers on [never mind that the horse didn't wear them]. You need to go back to your stable, have a clear-out and start with the biggest carthorse of them all, Juan Sebastian Veron".

Ouch. Maybe not the most diplomatic of criticisms, but then it hardly merited the Scot's reply: "I am not going to respond to that. You are an idiot."

Maybe, just maybe, Ferguson and United will surprise us all, domestically and in Europe, but most Fergie watchers are of the opinion that, contrary to past years when results have not always gone in his favour, he is not entirely relishing the job. United ought to advance from Group D. If they don't, and Premiership results remain as unsatisfactory, the consequences will be intriguing.

In contrast, and despite an iffy month, Arsène Wenger retains his philosophical demeanour, though whether that will be the case after the conclusion of Group B is debatable. Valencia, Roma – who managed to beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu recently – and even Ajax are all more than capable of dashing the Gunners' European aspirations. This is a stern examination, and only by emerging as qualifiers will Arsenal persuade us that they can genuinely emulate Manchester United's 1999 triumph.

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