Ferguson refuses to fret about United's defensive problems

Tim Rich
Wednesday 25 February 2004 01:00

It was Carnival in Oporto when Manchester United landed, although you would hardly have known it from the wind slicing in off the Atlantic. Sir Alex Ferguson's mood matched the weather rather than the occasion.

The United manager was irritated by questions about an increasingly unreliable defence which has been exposed still further by the knee injury to Mikaël Silvestre, one of its most reliable members.

This was not a good time to ask whether he had made a mistake in investing in a striker rather than a centre-half during last month's transfer window. Somebody did and received the expected response.

This should have been an occasion for celebration and reflection. Tonight in the new Dragao Stadium, Ferguson will take charge of his 100th Champions' League fixture with Manchester United, more than any of his great contemporaries. Of the previous 99, more than half have been won. As a success ratio, Ferguson's record of 53 per cent is slightly higher than Ottmar Hitzfeld or Marcello Lippi and bettered only by Vicente Del Bosque and, more surprisingly, Louis van Gaal, who has won 61 per cent of his Champions' League fixtures.

Tonight's encounter will be as tough as any of the previous 99. On paper, Porto represent a difficult but manageable task. They may be the Uefa Cup-holders and undefeated since losing 3-1 to Real Madrid in October, but the Portuguese champions are not quite in the first rank of European clubs.

Yet the fragility which has surrounded United since Rio Ferdinand began his suspension gives Porto's coach, Jose Mourinho, who learned his trade as an assistant to Bobby Robson at three different clubs, the stage for an upset. In the words of Phil Neville, Manchester United have "staggered back into the Champions' League".

Ferguson was protective of his side's display against Leeds on Saturday, claiming Alan Smith's equaliser was triggered by "a tremendous leap" rather than any fundamental weakness at the back.

Ferguson also gave no indication that he would consider moving Roy Keane into central defence for tonight's first leg. It would be seen as a desperate measure and not just because the Manchester United captain dislikes the position. In the heart of the back four, Keane would be able to exert less influence on the contest while to the young, specialist defenders, Wes Brown and John O'Shea, it might appear a debilitating lack of confidence from their manager.

"Wes is getting closer to what he was," Ferguson said of a player who, until two cruciate ligament injuries, was considered potentially one of United's great centre-halves. "On Saturday he came on and I thought he was much more like himself. He can only get better now, there's no question about that. I don't think he's been slow to adapt because of any mental problems, it's a physical thing; he has been out for eight months. Realistically, we are asking an awful lot of the boy."

Given the awesome solidity of United's European record at Old Trafford, Porto need to win tonight and will have to conjure victory without their Brazilian striker, Derlei, who is injured, or their suspended midfielder, Costinha.

When these teams met in the European Cup quarter-final seven years ago, Porto were demolished 4-0 in Manchester, rendering the second leg an irrelevance. "The way it worked out was beyond my wildest dreams," Ferguson remarked. "I have seen a lot of good performances at Old Trafford but this was the most emphatic I have known as a manager.

Yesterday he was still looking for goals. "Our attitude will be to try to score," Ferguson said. "We have had one or two 0-0 draws and it's not a comfortable situation to be in; you never feel you've achieved a result that makes you happy."

Ferguson welcomes the fact that the Champions' League has now become a knock-out competition, although since winning the European Cup, Manchester United's record in these one-off games is hugely indifferent.

In five years, they have won just one of these ties, against Deportivo La Coruña. Ferguson thought they had been unlucky in the semi-final with Bayer Leverkusen two years ago, and wondered how they could have scored five times against Real Madrid in last season's quarter-final and still not gone through. The answer was, of course, that they had conceded six.

Porto (probable 4-3-1-2): Baia, Ferreira, Jorge Costa, Carvalho, Nuno Valente, Pedro Mendes, Maniche, Alenitchev, Deco, Jankauskas, McCarthy.

Manchester United (probable 4-1-4-1): Howard, G.Neville, Brown, O'Shea, Fortune, Keane, Ronaldo, P.Neville, Scholes, Giggs, Van Nistelrooy.

Referee: H Fandel (Germany).

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