Fergie backs Ferdinand to find his feet
The message from Alex Ferguson to Rio Ferdinand could not have been any more ominous: if the England defender does not evolve his game, his days at Old Trafford are numbered.
Ferdinand was dropped for last Saturday's trip to Everton but has been granted an instant reprieve in tonight's Champions League Group C game against Otelul Galati courtesy of Nemanja Vidic's suspension.
As the most public scapegoat following the recent 6-1 home defeat to Manchester City, if Ferdinand was already concerned about his manager's dwindling faith in him he will not feel any more reassured by his selection against the Romanians.
Ferguson's response to questions about Ferdinand's longevity at the club was the observation he has "lost a yard of pace" and needs to reconsider his approach to defending.
United's manager countered what was a surprisingly frank assessment with supportive remarks about Ferdinand's capacity to successfully adapt, but it shrouded the damning reality that this was the day the former England captain was being informed his seniority may now be working to his disadvantage.
Ferguson was publicly confirming what everyone already suspected: Phil Jones' arrival and Chris Smalling's emergence have contributed to a hierarchical shift in the United defence.
"I explained to Rio the other day that we have two young centre-halves coming through and I hope I can keep the four together for a long time," said Ferguson.
"But Rio is almost 33 and has obviously lost the yard of pace he had five years ago and he has to tailor his game a different way. He cannot rely on his pace any more. That is obvious.
"We have all faced that decisive moment in your career when you have to realise that you have to change your game -- I had to do it myself when I lost my sharpness -- and Rio will have to do the same, and if he does, he will be fine.
"I don't think there is any problem. He has been with us eight years now and has been a fantastically consistent performer. He has been top class, brilliant. He will have to rearrange his game a little bit.
"He is still one of the best footballers in the country in terms of his use of the ball; he still has a great presence, he still can tackle and still can head the ball, but what has changed for Rio is that he has lost that electric yard he had a few years ago, but he will change and play a big part. No question about that."
Vidic's ban for the dismissal in Romania a fortnight ago at least offers Ferdinand the opportunity to remind Ferguson that he has no desire to wind down his career. "Rio will play (against Galati), but Vidic's performance was excellent against Everton," said Ferguson.
"He was a bit unfortunate to be sent off in Romania, but I can understand the referee's decision because his foot was high. He didn't make contact and unfortunately for us we miss him, but Rio steps in and I have no problem with that."
Despite the importance of the away victory over Galati, Ferguson considers tonight's match a "must win" after United's stuttering start in their group. Another slip-up at Old Trafford would be a serious threat to their chances of qualification.
As well as Smalling, he is still without Ashley Young with a toe injury and Tom Cleverley is nursing a hamstring problem.
"We need to win, that's for sure," said Ferguson. "Playing over there has given us that incentive to go through. Galati were very organised, committed and are a very strong, aggressive team, and I think we will need a good performance to beat them.
"We will make one or two changes, not great ones because of injuries. Most of them are on the mend. The likes of Tom Cleverley won't play; he is not serious but got a little tweak against Everton and we have to take the long view and have him available rather than play him and hope it does not come back to haunt us.
"Hopefully, we will have a strong enough team tomorrow," added Ferguson, who celebrates an incredible 25 years as United manager on Sunday.
And Ryan Giggs, who has been part of the Scot's plans for all but the first five, becoming an integral part of 12 titles and two Champions League triumphs, is in awe of Ferguson's staggering capacity for work.
Approaching his 70th birthday, Ferguson still pursues a relentless schedule, showing he is capable of following his own advice.
"You can have all the qualities in the world, but hard work is the key to everything," said Giggs.
"He's seen plenty of quality players come and go at United over the years, but the main thing that sets great players apart from the rest is their work ethic. And he leads by example, of course. He's always first in at the training ground and last to leave, and he wants to see that kind of mentality from his players as well.
"He just loves his job. He loves watching United play. He loves seeing players develop. He loves everything about his job. You couldn't do what he does at his age and have the work ethic he's got if you didn't love it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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Nani v Cornel Rapa
The Portuguese winger has started on the bench in two of the group games and will hope to make the most of a start against his young Romanian opponent.
Wayne Rooney v Sergiu Costin
Rooney scored twice in the away leg and is at his best dropping back to dictate matches, so Costin will be detailed with tracking his movements.
Manchester Utd v Otelul Galati,
Live, RTE 2/Sky Sports 2, 7.45