Wednesday 22 March 2017

Fergie's come a long way since darkest winter

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Paul Hayward

When Alex Ferguson rummaged through 25 years of memories a month ago, the night of Dec 7, 2005, will have been shoved back in the trunk. In a turbulent winter, Manchester United lost 2-1 in Benfica to finish bottom of Champions League Group D and were denied even the comfort of a Uefa Cup spot.

Only twice in 16 years have United failed to progress beyond the group stage: in 1994-95 and again six years ago, when a team boasting Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs traipsed home from Lisbon to deal with the extended fallout from Roy Keane's acrimonious departure.

Less than three weeks previously, Keane's tirade against some of the team-mates beaten 4-1 at Middlesbrough ignited the crisis that drew Ferguson into arguably the greatest individual conflict of his quarter-century in charge.

It was a classic Fergusonian him-or-me and Keane lost, after 12 years of service, for believing he was now more powerful than the overlord.

Eight days later George Best's death delivered another spiritual blow to the supporters. Two other factors conspired against stability as United entered a winter of discontent.

TAKEOVER

The hotly resisted Glazer family takeover in the summer and growing tension between Van Nistelrooy and the coaching staff obliged Ferguson to draw on all his political strength.

Against this backdrop, an early termination of United's current European journey, in Basel, would cause only mild discomfort compared to the emotional blood loss of 2005, when United's players were jeered during the 1-0 defeat in Lille in October.

The point of juxtaposing the two events is to affirm United's talent for recovery. The following month, they stomped on Wigan, Aston Villa, West Brom and Bolton.

In January, Ferguson signed Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra and the following summer sold the increasingly disputatious Van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid.

He also spent £18m on Michael Carrick and smooth-talked Ronaldo after his wink-related run-in with Rooney at the 2006 World Cup.

Much of this feels hypothetical because the likelihood is that United will assert their superior pedigree and advance from their test in Basel.

To crash out now would only deepen the wounds left by Barcelona's masterclass in the Champions League final at Wembley in May, which accelerated a drive at United's Carrington academy to produce more young players capable of prospering against the very best in Europe.

With that in mind, United have already edged towards a more continental style at the back of the current team, where Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are much closer to the continental norm than Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were, or even Vidic is now.

The Benfica defeat came at the end of a fallow period which ran from the 2004 FA Cup victory to the Carling Cup win of February 2006 -- a 4-0 win over Wigan which Van Nistelrooy watched from the bench.

United were being rebuilt around Rooney and Ronaldo: the pistons who supplied the punch for three consecutive league titles from the 2006/07 season on.

This time, United descend on Switzerland as Premier League champions and Champions League runners-up, without the diplomatic bedlam caused by Keane and later Van Nistelrooy, but with a new wave of colts pushing through.

On the other side of the ledger, Manchester City have taken over from Chelsea as the benefactor-funded monster to be most feared.

Already it is apparent that a more competitive domestic title race has drained more energy from England's four European contenders and will continue to do so, however many qualify.

United's only serious deficiency is in the midfield creativity department, where there is no improviser to compare with David Silva (Man City), Juan Mata (Chelsea) or Luka Modric (Spurs).

Nor, in the absence of Tom Cleverley, is the heart of United's side blessed with true dynamism or thrust. Anderson is injured, Carrick suspended, Ryan Giggs 38 and Ji-sung Park becalmed.

Thus Ferguson leans on his wingers Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia to compensate for a lack of artistry in the middle.

An unfailing United skill is to cling on through the dips in form, recover from major setbacks and then apply all the know-how acquired through Ferguson's 25 years to increase the pace and intensity through the second half of the season.

In the unlikely event of calamity in Basel there would be increased pressure to raise the reconstruction tempo: to get the cranes moving faster over the midfield.

Yet there is only a slim prospect of any major artiste being up for sale in January.

Ferguson crushed the demons of 2005. The last of his winters will never be so dark. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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