As concern mounts within Old Trafford over the prospect of another season without a trophy, Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday began planning in earnest for an overhaul of Manchester United's squad while preparing them for tonight's final encounter in Group F of the Champions' League at home to Bayer Leverkusen.
Stung by United's capitulation in the Manchester derby – which he tersely refused to discuss at the Uefa press conference – Ferguson called his senior coaches and scouts in for a summit meeting. The names of Nicolas Burdisso (Boca Juniors), Julien Escudé (Rennes), Hernan Crespo (Lazio) and potential new goalkeepers are likely to have been raised as targets when the transfer window reopens in the new year.
Ferguson, however, has only 18 fit players available for a match from which United need only a draw to finish top. Some of those who may make way for new blood will therefore be pressed into action against Leverkusen, who will join them in the second phase but must win by better than 2-1 to deny United first place.
Phil Neville's error-strewn display at Maine Road makes him an obvious candidate for omission, although United are short of midfield ball-winners in the continued absence of Roy Keane and Nicky Butt. David Beckham, the stand-in captain, returns after suspension, while Laurent Blanc could lose out to John O'Shea for a place in central defence.
The Leverkusen line-up will be radically different from the one which knocked out United in the semi-finals last season before losing to Real Madrid in Glasgow. Michael Ballack has departed, and their gregarious coach, Klaus Toppmöller, has rested several players with a view to improving on 12th place in the Bundesliga next weekend.
Among those left behind are Lucio, the Brazilian World Cup defender, and the German internationals Bernd Schneider and Oliver Neuville. Yildiray Basturk, the Turkey midfielder, is serving a one-game ban. Hanno Baltisch, a 21-year-old midfielder, said: "Both coaches will experiment, but it certainly won't be a friendly."
Ferguson might scoff at the first half of that statement, yet his players will be in no doubt as to the importance of a backlash after the surrender to City. "We owe him a bit back," Paul Scholes said with masterful understatement, "because Saturday was disappointing."
United's 2-1 win at Leverkusen in September was arguably their finest 90 minutes this season, and Ferguson admitted they had reserved their best for the Champions' League. Calling for "another European performance", he noted that winning the group would "keep us away from the form teams". Anything less will merely fuel the talk of crisis.
Manchester United (4-4-2; probable): Barthez; G Neville, O'Shea, Ferdinand, Silvestre; Beckham, Scholes, Veron, Giggs; Solskjaer, Van Nistelrooy.
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