Ferguson selection dilemma as United stand-ins sparkle

By Tim Rich
Friday 13 December 2002 01:00

One of Sir Alex Ferguson's favourite phrases is that in Europe at least Manchester United make it difficult for themselves, which was never truer than when they won the European Cup against a stack of sometimes self-inflicted odds three years ago.

This season, United have made it very easy. There has been the shock of the odd early goal conceded against Maccabi Haifa at Old Trafford in September and in Basle last month, but those matches finished with United scoring five and three times respectively. Their lone defeat, at the hands of the Israelis, came when they had already qualified for the second phase.

As the Champions' League goes into its winter break, United are five points clear of Deportivo La Coruña, who occupy third place in Group D. The quarter-finals beckon again, but Deportivo's coach, Javier Irureta, pointed out that his next two games were home and away against Basle, who like Newcastle have done well to qualify for the second stage, where they suddenly look out of their depth. He said he could expect six points from those two matches, especially with Fran, Diego Tristan and Juan Valeron fully fit, while United have to play Juventus twice.

The side that Ferguson puts out against the Italian champions at Old Trafford on 19 February should also feature plenty of changes from the one which overcame Basle and Deportivo. Roy Keane, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Rio Ferdinand and Laurent Blanc should all be available once more, although the question of who they replace is rather more problematic.

It is quite possible Blanc will not feature seriously again in Ferguson's plans. Well as Mikaël Silvestre and Wes Brown have performed in the heart of United's defence, Ferdinand will have to return, maybe as early as against West Ham tomorrow, not least because you do not pay £30m for someone and leave him on the bench – an argument that ensured Juan Sebastian Veron's selection during his first season in Manchester.

Nevertheless, since being shifted into a central defensive position midway through United's Worthington Cup victory at Burnley, Silvestre has been absolutely commanding. He had been used there when he first came to Old Trafford from Internazionale, but looked very uncomfortable, not least when being pulled apart by Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips at Sunderland in December 1999. He was soon remodelled as an effective left-back.

"When you have a naturally left-sided player, the natural tendency is to play him as a left-back," Ferguson said. "But Mikaël looks upon himself as a centre-half and could do very well there. Wes Brown we have known about for a long time, he could be one of the best centre-halves in the country if he steers clear of injury."

Beckham, who trotted on for the final 10 minutes on Wednesday night when Deportivo had already accepted defeat, will also have to return to fill his regular berth on the right side of midfield. His passing and dead-ball skills demand it but in his absence United have benefited from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's pace, a quality the England captain does not possess.

Many have argued that Keane and Veron cannot play in the same side; their styles do not complement each other and they tend to go for the same ball. It may be no coincidence that the Argentinian has flourished in Keane's absence and yet you would bet heavily that both will start against Juventus – and that United might be less effective because of it. For a club like Manchester United, the problems of success are sometimes as tricky as those created by failure.

* Fabien Barthez will not face charges over an incident in which a fan was allegedly hit by a water bottle he threw into the crowd against Leeds at Elland Road in September.

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