James Lawton: Fergie should apologise for not bringing Sneijder to Old Trafford
Published 02/12/2011 | 05:00
Could it be that a disturbing truth is finally dawning on Old Trafford, the one that the seamless link between one set of champions and another has snapped?
Maybe it is so when you remember that a public apology has never been Alex Ferguson's reflex action in defeat, especially one that ultimately came from a goal that was plainly offside.
Certainly you don't have to be the world's greatest code-breaker to read more than a routine message of regret by the United manager in the wake of this week's shocking dismissal from the Carling Cup by Championship also-rans Crystal Palace.
Ferguson suggested deeper worries than mere ejection from big-time football's least-prized competition when he admitted: "I don't know where to start, to be honest... this wasn't a Manchester United performance."
One of his concerns was, no doubt, the sense that his pre-match promise that he would be unveiling a 21st century version of the Busby Babes, his latest wave of the future, with the appearance of such highly-publicised prospects as Ravel Morrison and Zeki Fryers, had gone horribly wrong.
Pragmatically, the master of Old Trafford had decided that senior players operating on the first-team fringe -- Antonio Valencia, Dimitar Berbatov, Park-Ji Sung and the rehabilitating Chris Smalling -- needed some match action, which left Morrison and Fryers and the equally rated Paul Pogba with second half walk-on roles.
This meant that the billing of the 'Next Generation' was overtaken by another serious examination of the depth of the current one.
For an Old Trafford showing an alarming number of empty spaces -- and most especially a distraught Ferguson -- this was inevitably a distressing experience.
The brutal conclusion that United's reserves of creativity had never looked quite so barren, was impossible to avoid.
While Park and Darron Gibson trundled in near midfield anonymity, it was impossible to forget that, in the absence of Paul Scholes, and the inevitable ebbing of Ryan Giggs, United's ability to shape and dominate games has been so limited that Wayne Rooney has been required to drop back from the front of attack at the cost of a critical weakening of scoring potential.
As Palace struck for victory, there had to be some reflection on the brilliance of the superb strike by Sergio Aguero that carried Manchester City into the semi-finals with victory at Arsenal.
Arguero was served exquisitely by Adam Johnson, a player of huge talent, who struggles to nail down a regular first-team place.
Also hard to dismiss was the fact that City's last Premier League companions in the competition were Liverpool, hugely strengthened by major transfer activity. And what were United doing when City and Liverpool were making the moves for Arguero and Luis Suarez that have so quickened their momentum, and when Spurs were maintaining their creative force by hanging on to Luka Modric?
They were, critically, it is beginning to appear, missing out on the major acquisition that each week of this season is beginning to haunt them more deeply.
They were failing to make the big and vital signing that seemed such a fundamental need even with the landing of a record 19th championship.
For many it became a formality when Paul Scholes decided that he was finished and Giggs, for all his moments of luminous recall of the best of his days, was left dated and irrelevant in the Champions League final against Barcelona.
United desperately needed the iron and the craft and the sheer authority of someone like Internazionale's Wesley Sneijder.
They needed a player who could do what Scholes did supremely, take hold of a game with bold, authoritative strokes.
As United's lukewarm pursuit unfolded, as the sticking point plainly became a matter of financial restraint rather than doubts about the Dutchman's capacity to fill a vital need, you could only wonder about Ferguson's ability to work his usual trick of transition.
Now there are suggestions that United may be back in the market for Sneijder, that the need to re-deploy Rooney was, indeed, the starkest admission thus far that Ferguson had recognised a killing weakness in his resources, one highlighted when assessing the strength of the challenge represented most pressingly by City.
If that was a suspicion, it became the coldest of realities when United were so contemptuously put to the sword by their city rivals at Old Trafford, when United blustered in attack and City responded with coldly efficient counter-attack.
This week Ferguson was caught between an early statement about the strength of his young players for the future and the need to sharpen key experienced reserves.
The smack of defeat, from such an unlikely quarter, was always bound to heighten foreboding at such a formative stage of the season.
But a public apology rather some airy dismissal of one of those games which go wrong without any lasting damage?
That was the new element in the demeanour of the man who is normally so ready to reject the idea of losing as anything more than a passing impertinence.
It is also invites new questions about the will, and the means, of the American owners to supply the kind of financial support that City's Roberto Mancini now takes for granted.
If it is true, it is not hard to imagine the degree of battle weariness Ferguson may have encountered as the young Palace players celebrated the greatest night of their football lives.
One by one, he has knocked down the upstarts, most notably Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, but now he has to wonder if he is engaged in a battle which he cannot win.
Not, it seems reasonable to calculate, when his fiercest rival is able to add one layer of strength upon another.
Ferguson, just as much as those who took the trouble to go Old Trafford this week, badly needed some reassurance after City's brilliant strike at the Emirates Stadium.
Perhaps an apology was the least damaging response. Better, anyway, than a cry of frustration and rage.